Time, inexorably passing and gratefully savored, informs much of Patty Griffin’s latest effort, Children Running Through. Fittingly, it arrives amidst this season’s coldest days. Throughout the 12-song collection (13 when purchased through iTunes), it’s winter – for broken bodies and beaten souls. World-weary resignation courses through this, Griffin’s fifth and most fully realized record, and colors the chilly landscape of slow buses, empty fields and sinking vessels like flinty clouds.
Fans of every phase of Griffin’s 11-year recording career will find something to like here, from the raw acoustic folk of her earliest work to the lush arrangements on 2004’s Impossible Dream. Often, the elements come together in a single song. “No Bad News” opens with busker guitar and ends a Calypso romp, while the Dylanesque “Getting Ready” hints at the stark, percolating fury of Living With Ghosts, then shifts into a loose garage band sound familiar to anyone who’s heard a leaked Internet copy of Silver Bell, her unreleased masterpiece.
There are gentler moments, such as “You’ll Remember,” a sultry torch song that opens the disc, and the spare, nostalgic piano ballad, “Burgundy Shoes.” Griffin and producer Mike McCarthy (Spoon) again recruit Americana grand dame Emmylou Harris to sing backup to stunning effect. Framed by elegiac guitar, Harris’s brittle, beautiful voice perfectly complements “Trapeze,” the tale of an aging circus performer who has loved, lost and even taken a potion to harden her heart, yet still works without a net.
“Trapeze” is a perfect distillation of the storytelling magic heard in earlier works like “Making Pies” and “Top of the World.” It’s destined to be one she’s singing 20 years from now, and make no mistake – people will pay to experience Griffin’s timeless magic even then. For more than any songwriter, Patty Griffin crafts her music the way Shakers make chairs, seamlessly joined and breathtaking in their durable beauty.
Griffin’s songs are as lean as her frail physique, yet powerful as the train at the center of “Railroad Wings.” “There are things you don’t know you know,” observes Griffin over a lazy guitar cadence, coming to wisdom by song’s end: “as far as I can tell everything means nothing/except some things that mean everything.” Such small, beautiful jewels are everywhere on this record.
The “children running through” this disc would bury Griffin or worse, reduce her to irrelevancy. “I’m no kid/In a kid’s game,” she laments at one point, a moment later waiting to “send the ghosts on their way/tell them they’ve had their day” in “Someone Else’s Tomorrow.”
But Griffin echoes each funereal moment with one of fierce determination. On the gospel-fueled “Heavenly Day,” she sings, “tomorrow may rain with sorrow/here’s a little time we can borrow,” with the spirited abandon of a young Aretha Franklin. Throughout, she wrestles hope from her darkest moments. In “I Don’t Ever Give Up,” she states defiantly, “I’m not clean/but I’m not washed up.”
Hardly. This record probably won’t get much radio airplay, and may be completely ignored by a youth culture that consumes music like Pop-Tarts. But Children Running Through will be passed, hand-to-hand, among the gray believers who know that, as the final track (“Crying Over”) intones, “in all of this dreaming of silver and gold/is something to break this winter so cold.”