As artists move through the world, they see and feel things that less-sensitive people don’t. Then, they retreat to their creative spaces and translate those experiences into music, paintings, and words, as best they can. Patty Griffin has long had her eyes and heart trained on the stories unfolding around her in the lives of the overlooked and the underestimated. Occasionally, she even turns her gaze inward to express the trials and tribulations she, herself, is enduring. With Servant of Love, Griffin shares both of those perspectives wrapped up in the most elegant and urbane musical setting she’s offered to date.
To be sure, Griffin has never stood still for long, musically. She quickly evolved her sound away from her brilliantly sparse Living with Ghosts debut album to her wonderfully dense Flaming Red second effort. Since then, she’s struck various soulful balances of Greenwich Village folk, central Texas country, Mississippi Delta blues, and New Orleans jazz. Servant of Love brings all of that — and more — to bear in an incredibly sophisticated song cycle that, while perhaps not immediately exoteric, is worth the extra effort.
Because of that craftsmanship, Servant of Love comes off as somewhat detached on the first and second listens. There’s no “Moses,” no “Goodbye,” no “Rain” to hang your hat on here. Instead, from the opening piano salvo of the title track, Griffin challenges her listeners to take a journey with her. From the swampy lurch of “Gunpowder” to the gentle lilt of “Made of the Sun” to the mournful lull of “You Never Asked Me,” Griffin gracefully — sometimes heartbreakingly, always triumphantly — climbs her way toward an artistic height she’s been pointing to for 20 years now.