Patty Griffin: “Downtown Church”

For at least a few years now, Patty Griffin has enjoyed a critical reputation as a “secular gospel” singer, a term that suggests her involvement with the genre has more to do with aesthetic than it does with any particular creed. But what to say now that Griffin has recorded her first actual gospel album, Downtown Church— an album that draws in large part from traditional black gospel songs, that was in fact recorded in a church and is marked in part by a deep sense of reverence? Shall we chalk this one up to a formal exercise that derives its authenticity from its storied source material, or a sincerely soul-searching effort that derives its authenticity from the singer’s own marriage of her faith to her art?

Griffin herself grew up Catholic but seems less interested in applying a particular religious descriptor to herself these days, so any autobiographical readings will only go so far. The music itself, though, offers evidence in favor of both readings, and suggests that maybe Downtown Church is both the next step in Griffin’s artistic journey as well as her faith journey. Certainly, the album is a natural continuation from the increasingly gospel-influenced sounds of Impossible Dream and Children Running Through, and on one level the record works superbly as an exploration of traditional black gospel– so much so that the inclusion of Big Mamma Thorton’s “I Smell a Rat,” a snarling kiss-off to an unfaithful lover, feels less like a sore thumb than a curious but not unrelated diversion, being as it is a rambunctious, bluesy number that was likely inspired by– and an inspiration to– some of the other music included here.

It’s also evidence of Griffin’s interest in pursuing the roots of this music no matter how deep and wide they’re spread, something reflected in her choice of material: Not only are there familiar black gospel numbers like “Wade in the Water,” but also a nod to Hispanic religious traditions in “Virgen de Guadelupe,” and the inclusion of a song like “Waiting for My Child” suggests gospel in its social awareness and its musical structure more than in its explicit mentions of faith per se. But for all of this, Downtown Church smartly avoids being simply Patty Griffin Plays Gospel, feeling as much like an exploration of the religious themes contained within these songs as the musical heritage they carry with them. I’m not sure how else to explain the inclusion of the traditional hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King,” which is not a gospel song nor is it performed as one here; it’s a benediction that ends the album on a note of humility and prayerful reflection.

And then there’s the matter of the way these songs were recorded and produced by Buddy Miller. A friend has suggested that this is black gospel music as recorded for white people, and I suppose that’s fair enough, if you want to assume that black folks don’t much care for country-folk, which is essentially how these songs are presented here. No, this is not Patty Griffin throwing a hoedown or havin’ some church, but Patty Griffin assimilating these songs into her own sound, making them sound, well, like Patty Griffin songs. Which is not to say that the album is placid: Buddy knows how to capture the sparkling energy of a popping upright bass and rattling percussion, as on “Move Up,” and his swampy production turns “Wade in the Water” into a delightfully spooky sing-along. And that last part’s important, by the way: Griffin and Miller both know that these songs are meant to be sung by a community, and as such most of them are recorded with prominent back-up singers, giving the record the feel of a spirited sing-along even in its many quiet moments.

But if Miller understands that this is music made for singing, he also knows that gospel music offers serenity and reflection, which is how a lot of this material is recorded, be it the somber reading of Hank Williams’ “House of Gold” that opens the album, the warm glow of the pedal steel in “Little Fire,” or the tasteful strings and overlapping harmonies in “Coming Home to Me.” (Those last two, by the way, are the album’s lone originals, and they’re both exquisite.) This is beautifully meditative music that underscores one of the most unlikely characteristics of the chosen material– its reverence. Not reverence for the material so much as what it’s about: Griffin seems honestly interested in letting these songs of faith resonate in the listener’s mind and heart, and one assumes that they have some personal meaning for the singer, as well.

What Downtown Church is, in the end, is a rather accomplished piece of work, an album that works both as a gospel collection ans as a proper Patty Griffin release– one that feels like a natural extension of her last two records, not a diversion from them. It’s an album that celebrates traditional music and the unique stamp that a talented interpreter can put on it, an album that reflects religious faith in a way that’s direct but not didactic. That all makes it a very special recording, better even than the sum of its parts, and another knockout from one of our finest (not-so-)secular gospel singers.

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