Patty Griffin holds the coveted title of being a songwriter’s songwriter. Read interviews with contemporary musicians and songwriters and you hear Griffin referenced alongside Bob Dylan and Lucinda Williams as an artist who writes the kind of songs every artist envies. Innumerable artists have covered her songs in the studio or in concert. She’s just that good.
For her most recent studio effort, Downtown Church, Griffin mixes traditional gospel hymns with only two original tracks of her own. You might be skeptical of listening to what is essentially a religious covers album, especially when it means one of today’s best songwriters is merely interpreting someone else’s songs. Push past it because the result is an album that, while not as strong as some of Griffin’s best albums, showcases some of her best performances.
The somber Hank Williams-penned “House of Gold” opens Downtown Church with the soulful vocals you’d expect to hear fill a church on Sunday morning. The acoustic tune leaves Griffin’s powerhouse vocals front and center and lulls you into the false sense that you’re about to hear a pleasant but safe album. Once the second track strikes up, you realize the album is built around dynamic shifts. Griffin wails the opening line of the traditional cut “Move Up” before a Delta rhythm and chorus of men jump in. While you could imagine hearing this kind of enthusiasm in a fiery Baptist service, you can just as easily imagine Griffin vamping it up for a packed, smoky club.
Shifting from a straightforward reading of a religious tune to a sassier delivery makes for fun listening and an interesting album. Yet, Griffin has stated that her decision to dedicate an entire album to gospel music was a way for her to explore her ongoing, complicated relationship with religion. The album is as secular as it is religious, and Griffin plays the role of worshiper just as often as she plays the entertainer letting her hair down. Where Tori Amos has spent the better part of two decades exploring sexuality and the dark side of religion with her original work, Griffin steps back and lets religion do the talking for her-with just as much success. “Death’s Got a Warrant” is a brutal warning from Griffin and her back-up singers: “God’s got your number and he knows where you live/Death’s got a warrant for you/You can’t hide/You can’t hide because you don’t know how.” The only musical accompaniment is an echoing drum that rattles your speakers. It’s the kind of message that will get you to a church, but you’ll be focused on staying out of Hell and not on worshipping God. Therein lies the beauty of Downtown Church.
Unexpectedly, Griffin’s two original tunes are the weakest of the collection. Perhaps her lyricism works best in its own context and not situated between traditional songs that are obviously pulled from another era. Vocally, she’s exquisite as usual, but the arrangements are pedestrian for someone of Griffin’s caliber. Contrast “Little Fire” and “Coming Home to Me” with the far more interesting traditional “Virgen de Guadalupe”. Never mind that the Spanish song should stick out for several reasons on an otherwise gospel album. Griffin sounds just as home singing like a choir member in a South Texas town as she does channeling her inner Mississippi performer on “I Smell a Rat”. The latter’s bluesy guitar will have your shoulders moving before it will have you praying.
Downtown Church sounds like the work of an artist exploring the different facets of religion-specifically southern worship. Yet, Griffin resists reaching a conclusion on this record and doesn’t even offer much in the way of commentary. Although she sets herself up for frustrated listeners who ask, “So what?” she adeptly gets her point across. These 14 tracks aren’t supposed to be a template for an argument in support of or against religion. It’s a sampler of what music is out there and what’s been sung in churches and in families for generations. Much of the album’s success comes in its restrained production. Given to a flashier artist, the record would be an excuse to show off just how much the performer can belt out a note until she’s blue in the face. Griffin has spent enough time south of the Mason-Dixon line to know what she’s doing, and she sells it. Sure, you might miss hearing her own powerful lyrics, but a few minutes in and you’ll surrender to Griffin and her journey from church to church.