Patty Griffin – Gliding bird
There’s a war and a plague, smoke and disaster
Lions in the Coliseum, screams of laughter
Motherless children, a witness and a Bible
— “Love Throws A Line”
“There were issues of anger that were rearing their ugly heads in me for the last year or so. I was like everyone else who’s kind of wondering about the state of our state and the state of our world. I was trying to contend with that.”
Griffin, warming her hands around a cup of coffee, was explaining the forces behind the music on Impossible Dream. Produced by a longtime friend and collaborator, Craig Ross, and recorded in Austin with a diverse array of hometown and Nashville musicians, the eleven-song album might be described as the state of her own state. And it isn’t a tranquil picture.
“It feels like a constant battle, with no relief in sight,” said Ross, echoing discussions he and Griffin have shared. “It’s tough, because we live and work in a world of illusion. But for me, one of the reasons I’ve always been a big fan of Patty’s is that her songs involve a huge amount of truth. My impression wasn’t anger; I saw these songs we were working on as more of a quest for truth in the best way she knew how to do it.”
Griffin says her discontent was triggered by the failure of the world to meet her expectations. “It’s gonna happen in everybody, but to target someone with your anger is not an acceptable choice,” she allows. “This record is me processing that.”
Impossible Dream resonates like a turbulent Winslow Homer seascape — racing clouds shot through with bolts of light, the tidal ebb and flow, the rise and fall of waves.
The despair that belies the jazzy arrangement of “Love Throws A Line” is redeemed only by the title lyric: “Love throws a line to you and me.” (One wonders if Griffin ever saw Homer’s 1884 painting, The Life Line). Emotional and geographic baggage weigh down a traveler trying to take her leave in “Useless Desires” (“Somewhere beyond the bitter end is where I want to be”). A voice ravaged by the knowledge of missed opportunities and failed chances inhabits the lines of the ironically titled “Top Of The World” (“There’s a whole lot of singing that’s never gonna be heard/Disappearing every day without so much as a word”). A golden-shored promised land betrays sunny expectations in “Mother Of God” and “Florida” (“Ain’t it hard sometimes, isn’t it lonely/How I still hang around here, with nothing to hold me”). In “Icicles”, she observes, “I must confess there appears to be way more darkness than light.” (“I know a cold,” she sings elsewhere, “as cold as it gets.”)
And yet… The gospel thump and moan of “Standing” offers an aural beacon of hope (“Sister, brother, there’s a fire on the hill/And it’s burning like a lantern…Making all this terror stand still”). The hypnotic “Rowing Song” drifts along in a dreamy suspension of the quotidian day-to-day (“So out of range, sometimes so strange, sometimes so sweet, sometimes so lonely”). “Don’t Come Easy” and “Love Throws A Line” both envision a cord of endearment as a lifeline. “Kite”, arguably the loveliest song on the album, seems to envision a breezy state of grace.
It isn’t pop or rock, and it certainly isn’t folk. It’s music that seems to exist on its own plane, like that of Joni Mitchell or Billie Holiday. One comes to Patty Griffin’s music on her terms, not yours.
Three of the songs on the album — “Standing”, “Mother Of God” and “Top Of The World” — are re-imagined renditions of songs that originally appeared on Silver Bell, an unreleased album from 2000 that fell victim to record-company politics and corporate cannibalism during the tail-end of Griffin’s major-label tenure (which included stops at A&M, PolyGram and Interscope within the Universal umbrella).
“I wanted ‘Mother Of God’ to see the light of day,” Griffin said. “I felt like it’s a song from a female point of view, which I don’t seem to hear that much — a specific female voice. And I think ‘Florida’ and ‘Mother Of God’ paired together on the record are sort of the real point of view of two women.
“I thought that ‘Top Of The World’ was a song I needed to get out there for my own. Somebody else had done another version of it, and I wanted to have my own presentation to the public.” That “somebody else” was the Dixie Chicks, who selected “Top Of The World” as the closing number for their 2002 album Home, in addition to including Griffin’s “Truth #2” (a Silver Bell track Griffin chose not to revisit on Impossible Dream).
The title track of Impossible Dream is, in its own way, as moving as anything on the album. Attached to the end of “Top Of The World” in the CD track-sequencing, it features Griffin’s mom and dad harmonizing on the old Broadway chestnut.
“One of the records that I remember from growing up was the soundtrack of Man Of La Mancha,” Griffin explained. “I was walking around Town Lake one day, and I was in a really foul mood. And you can walk down these little paths and sit on the trunks of these trees by the water. I sat there and this idea popped into my head, literally out of nowhere — on the way home, stop at Waterloo Records and buy the soundtrack to Man Of La Mancha and learn ‘The Impossible Dream’.
“And I did. I brought the record home and put it on, and I sat down at the piano and started playing it, and I felt like something melted. Like there was something I had forgotten, but was remembering about nobility, standing in the face of adversity all by yourself…” — she’s laughing, a little self-consciously, but dead serious — “…seeing beauty…Anyway…to me, that is what that song is trying to capture.
“You turn on the news, and there’s so many people fighting each other and you think that’s all there is. This is not a popular time to be supportive of your fellow human beings.” To Griffin, “The Impossible Dream” was a torch held up to the gathering darkness.
Besides, she added, “I just wanted my mom on my record. I was going to leave [Maine] the next morning, and I had a little tape recorder and we’d talked about it. I took my parents to see Seabiscuit that evening, and we came back and they were both in such a good mood that my dad wanted to sing too. So they both sang, and I think it’s pretty beautiful.”
(Beautiful, but not free. “When I brought my mom down for a visit, a couple of my musician friends pointed out to her that she should be asking for union scale. And, in fact, she could actually get session leader pay for it, too. And my mom did point that out to me.” She laughed, and it is worth pointing out at this juncture that she has a wonderful repertoire of laughs, from giggles to sharp barks of pleasure. Her conversation is punctuated with merriment.)