It’s easy for Patty Griffin fans to be apprehensive about a new album. It was 17 years ago this month that she released her breathtaking debut Living With Ghosts, a nearly perfect collection of 10 tracks featuring mainly Griffin and her acoustic guitar. The songs and stories were raw and beautiful and illustrated her almost unparalleled skills as a singer and songwriter. It was almost an accident the album worked so well – the songs were written to be played with a band, and played loud; stripping them down to their bare essentials made all the difference (even though it wasn’t her choice). Nevertheless, Griffin added a band and rocked out on her second album, Flaming Red, which, while still a great album, was overproduced and had fans scratching their heads and asking what happened to the simplicity of her debut. Her third album, Silver Bell, was never officially released as her label, A&M Records, merged with Interscope and dropped her from the label. (Several songs turned up on later albums, and in the entire album is available for download on several fan sites.)
All of this, of course, confused casual fans who wondered what kind of songwriter Griffin was. Her next three albums all showed flashes of brilliance (particularly 2004’s Impossible Dream) but were uneven. 2010’s Downtown Church was easy to listen to because of Griffin’s instrumentation and vocals but was, at the end of the day, an album of gospel covers; Griffin’s interpretations of other material often feel vastly inferior to her original songs. Griffin then joined (and, according to some media reports, married) Robert Plant, touring with Band of Joy for a while, leading some to wonder if her solo career was over.
Which brings us to American Kid, her first album of original material in six years, and the best since her debut. Her time with Band of Joy has paid massive dividends, as the perfectly sculpted soundscapes she creates – with help from Band of Joy openers North Mississippi Allstars, and background vocals by Plant himself – easily pull on the ears and emotions as much as anything she’s done.