Servant Of Love
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
For every fan eager to follow as you color outside the lines, there are plenty of others that may yell “Judas,” as was famously slung at Bob Dylan when he had the audacity to front an electric blues rock band in 1966. It remains a tricky balancing act to expand conventional styles without alienating the audience it has taken years, even decades, to acquire. Neil Young has practically made a business out of it and others such as Tom Waits have elevated their status by shifting their approach in more experimental directions. Female artists as diverse as Emmylou Harris (Wrecking Ball,) Joni Mitchell (Mingus, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns) and Linda Ronstadt (take your pick) have been able to pull this transition off with varying degrees of success. Now, Patty Griffin gives it a shot.
It’s evident from the stark, moody opening piano ballad title track, accompanied only by squiggly muted jazz trumpet lines reminiscent of Miles Davis and bowed bass, that Griffin and producer Craig Ross are exploring fresh territory. From the pulsating, loud/soft dynamics to Griffin’s pounding/chiming piano (the only time she plays the instrument here) and her careening voice singing/purring and occasionally howling ethereal lyrics about spirits, shadows, moonlight, and waves, the piece lays down an early gauntlet and sets the bar high for the rest of the songs. In a word, it’s riveting and while little else on the album achieves its raw intensity or entrancing vocals, the remaining 10 selections display a similar propensity to challenge both herself and her listeners’ expectations.
Servant Of Love arrives at the right time. Griffin’s ninth studio release in a two-decade career (and the first recorded for her self-owned imprint) comes after supporting Robert Plant in his Band of Joy and 2013’s introspective, critically praised American Kid, both of which raised her visibility and considerably widened her commercial profile. She is joined by producer/multi-instrumentalist Ross. He plays on nearly every tune and is a driving force in allowing Griffin the space and musical backing to follow her muse. Outside of Daniel Lanois, there aren’t many Americana producers credited with playing “drones.”
That describes as much about stripped-down gems like the searing murder ballad “Good And Gone” and the hypnotic circular pattern of “Everything’s Changed” – both featuring only Griffin’s haunting acoustic guitar and Ralph White’s percussive kalimba – as any multi-hyphenated stylistic attempt at pigeonholing this powerful music into a defined, pre-existing genre. Elsewhere, more common accompaniment of electric guitar, bass and drums on “There Isn’t One Way” drives the vibe into dark, dangerous, ominous swamps. The standard drum kit only appears on a handful of tunes because Ross and Griffin are more concerned with exploring sonic landscapes such as those on “250,000 Miles” and “Rider Of Days” (both featuring backing vocals from Shawn Colvin) that use acoustic guitars and ghostly, spectral singing to bring melancholy moodiness to the already atmospheric groove.
The blues/jazz noir strains of “Noble Ground,” inspired as much by Rickie Lee Jones as Nina Simone, also pushes into edgier areas. It’s assisted by Ephraim Owens’ lonesome trumpet solo and John Deaderick’s deft, dark piano lines. But Griffin’s searing vocals as she sings “I can live the life that’s been written down/ Or fight the urge right to the ground” show a strength, passion and hunger seldom heard before. Perhaps a few more driving moments such as the taut, greasy “Gunpowder” (again featuring Owens’ trumpet) that squirm and shiver with obtuse, evocative yet unpretentious lyrics would deliver a more scorching musical punch.
Not that moments such as Ross’s bare bass and organ – along with Scrappy Jud Newcombe’s sinewy electric guitar that propels the self-affirming “Hurt A Little While” or the delicate “You Never Asked Me” (with its lone piano, the disc’s most traditional moment) – need additional instrumentation to poke their knives under the skin in prickly yet organic ways Griffin has rarely shown. This isn’t the first time she has dipped her toes into other genres; Downtown Church, the album of gospel songs from 2010, showed that Griffin was flexible enough to try something different. But this project is far more adventurous in its presentation of a unique and provocative sonic palette.
Like Emmylou Harris – who has toured and recorded with Griffin – the singe-/songwriter reshapes her definition of American music. She combines rootsy instrumentation with strains of blues, jazz and even a little rock, to invigorate a sound that many, likely including Griffin herself, might have felt was becoming stagnant, if not necessarily stale. While remnants of the “old” Griffin appear, specifically in the closing “Shine a Different Way” with its acoustic mandolin (played by Griffin) and unplugged guitars, Servant Of Love is a bold, unexpected shift in vision.
When Griffin sings, “Let the rusty nail/ No longer hold this world together/ I’m gonna let it be the sun/ In more ways than one/ Shine a different way tomorrow,” it’s clear from her unorthodox but effective foray into more oblique musical and philosophical waters that tomorrow is here today.