Takes an Army Just to Bend Her: On the ever-changing and undefined Patty Griffin

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Patty Griffin made 10 studio albums before deciding to name one after herself. Coming 22 years into her recording career, it’s a choice that can’t help but feel consequential, raising the specter of candid autobiography, or at the very least some kind of Rosebud moment. The album’s mosaic of stories, fantasies, dreams, and confessions doesn’t exactly add up to a memoir, but it does offer a robust meditation on the nature of self— on identity as something that’s foisted on us by destiny, but also forged through the decisions we make. “No matter where I go/ I can’t escape who I am— or forget,” Griffin sings on “Where I Come From,” a song about how you can run away from home but you can never escape where you come from. The album is concerned with those parts of the self that can’t be evaded—hardships overcome, scars earned, consequences lived with. As U2 might put it, it’s an album about all that you can’t leave behind.

Griffin recently weathered a hardship of her own: She survived cancer to make this album, something that’s never mentioned directly but brings focus to these ruminations on where she’s been and what she’s become. The cloud-bursting piano reverie “Luminous Places” is her moment of Zen: reflecting on a life devoted to song, Griffin is thankful for all the long highways she’s traversed, even as she knows her fate is to become “just another voice in the wind.” Considerably feistier is “Hourglass,” where a punch-drunk brass band punctuates Griffin’s reflections on immortality (“the hourglass never really runs out of sand/ you get to the end and you just turn it upside down again”). And over the stately churn of “River,” she hymns an ancient and mysterious reservoir of feminine strength: “She’s been left for dead a million times/ Keeps coming home, arms open wide/ Ever-changing and undefined.” She could be singing about any or every woman, but there’s comfort in thinking she’s singing about herself, marveling at a resilience she never realized she had in her.

There’s another way in which it feels right for this album to be self-titled: With quiet confidence, it consolidates all the strengths Griffin’s developed as a record-maker. She cut the album in her Austin residence with a small cohort of collaborators—producer Craig Ross, guitarist David Pulkingham, noted harmonist Robert Plant— and though it never strays from its homemade intimacy, it has the feel of a travelogue, an encapsulation of her journey to date. You can hear some of the rawness of her Living with Ghosts era on “River” and “Where I Come From,” two songs that lean into the rustle of acoustic guitar strings and the grain in the singer’s voice. But these songs aren’t retreads so much as refinements: “River” courses and swells through an orchestral undertow learned from Nick Drake albums, while the galloping “Where I Come From” is visited by a spectral choir, haunting Griffin’s thoughts in wordless solidarity. Griffin’s been at this long enough that she knows how much strength there is in doing a lot with a little, and the record’s most atmospheric effects are achieved through simplicity: “Bluebeard” is heavy with ominous storm clouds, conjured with nothing more than the drone and hum of acoustic guitar strumming, while “The Wheel” is a loping blues so limber and live-in, it sounds like it’s caked in Delta mud. There is evocative scene-setting throughout the album, nodding back to the porous Americana of Impossible Dream and Children Running Through: A high-and-lonesome Spanish guitar makes “Mama’s Worried” sound like it was recorded in the same border town where Willie Nelson made Teatro, and “Hourglass” lurches and tips like it’s wobbling down Bourbon Street.

The women in Griffin’s stories grapple with a world that’s vast and capricious, and it’s often symbolized here by nature itself. Rivers flow through these songs, and on “Hourglass,” they represent all the things Griffin’s protagonist is taught to fear. She doesn’t buy in: “I knew all along that that just wasn’t me/ I was swimming in the river with ghosts and debris.” Of course, Griffin has made a career out of diving headlong into the treacherous ebb of memory, but her courage is offset with moments of uncertainty. In the ghostly trance of “What Now,” our narrator seeks counsel and direction from the sea itself, and is met with roaring indifference. But like the preeminent naturalist Neko Case, Griffin seems to favor the idea that the natural world sides with the vulnerable and the oppressed. In the ghastly murder ballad “Bluebeard,” the protagonist takes up with a bloodthirsty brute; when she glimpses the dark abattoir of his heart she speaks up and nearly pays the price, but the ocean itself comes to her rescue, swallowing the evildoer whole. She’s a “maiden no more,” Griffin wryly observes, baptized by fire into a whole new identity.

But not many of the women on Patty Griffin have natural forces come to their aid; most are left to make the most of whatever hand they’re dealt. On several songs, dire situations are forced on them by men, who exist on this album mostly to cause trouble. There’s Bluebeard, of course, but also an unnamed lothario in “What I Remember,” who sweeps our heroine off her feet but then puts something in her drink. Griffin plays it like a tattered page from the Great American Songbook, and narrates the woman’s bleary recollections piece by painful piece. (“Here’s what I remember/ it really was that tender.”) And for the working-class mother in “Mama’s Worried,” men are just the beginning of her troubles; her husband has disappeared, leaving her with bills to pay and mouths to feed. She bears her burden with stoicism and hopes no one sees how much she’s hurting, but her daughter quietly takes it all in. Like Over the Rhine, Griffin reminds us that nothing goes unseen.

These characters are pressed but not crushed, oppressed but not despairing, and the album doesn’t linger on their circumstances so much as it highlights what they make of them. Like Griffin’s titular “River,” each woman here carves a “crooked line,” one equally informed by choice and destiny, and most have epiphanies of their true mettle. (“Takes an army just to bend her,” goes one awestruck line.) The subtlest and most stirring epiphany comes from the narrator in “Had a Good Reason”—a professional singer who, years after the fact, is still wrestling with maternal abandonment. “I used to think it might be who I am,” she admits. “Maybe who I am wasn’t right.” But now she knows better—and though she may still trace her scars, she knows they’re just part of who she is, and who she’s still becoming.