It’s a little startling to browse the lyrics to Children Running Through and come away slightly disappointed. Patty Griffin is one of the most incisive songwriters out there today, but Children Running Through seems painted with broad strokes, with several songs conveying a mood more than they tell a story. Where are the sepia-tinted vignettes that feel like they’ve steeped in Griffin’s family history until they take on a dusty bitterness? Where are the stories that feel like they’re being told from the end of a long life, when the diamond-edged regrets begin to show themselves as facets of a portrait that’s finally beginning to form? Did someone print Coldplay lyrics by mistake?
OK, so it’s not nearly that bad. To be fair, one of Griffin’s stated goals going into Children Running Through was to be less wordy, to create songs in the now. Plus, she claims to have finally run out of the songs that she’s been carting around for years, refining here and there. Even with Griffin downplaying one of her own strengths, though, a few songs on Children Running Through rank among Griffin’s best. In the “Making Pies” mold, “Burgundy Shoes” reinforces Griffin’s status as a lyrical time machine, recalling the sunny days and bus seats of childhood, with the image of burgundy shoes tying the whole thing together. Similary, a pink dress catches the mind’s eye in the Springsteen-folk of “Trapeze”, the story of a woman who takes to the high wires rather than love, and which rejoices, “One of these nights / The old girl’s going down / Hallelujah, the old girl’s going down”. The high-energy, punkish kiss-off of “Getting Ready” laments, “Baby, baby, you were my drug and I was just your cigarette” (it’s good to hear Griffin rock out on a few of Children‘s songs).
Griffin does give in to her lyrical muse a couple of times, though. “Railroad Wings” centers around the dark sentiment:
I thought anger told me what to do with the emptiness chasing me …
and this emptiness has followed me like a cold, blue sky
And it has not been easy for you
There’s things I’ll never tell you
Till the day I die
Things I done I can never undo.
“Someone Else’s Tomorrow”, though, stands as the album’s high point, both lyrically and musically. Floating atop a lonely, icy piano melody, Griffin reminisces:
Have you ever been baptized in the cool winter water
On a Sunday morning when the sky was gray
We filed out of the churchyard so cold it was silver
Into gold, tan and blue cars and the cars drove away.
She then extols the virtues of putting the past in the past, singing, “And all the memories fade send the ghosts on their way / Tell them they’ve had their day it’s someone else’s tomorrow”. It’s a song where everything comes together, from Griffin’s vocal delivery to her word choices to her arrangement.
The fact that the arrangement works shouldn’t come as a surprise. All of Children Running Through sounds magnificent; it’s easily the best sounding record of Griffin’s career. Co-producer Mike McCarthy (of Spoon) finds a fine balance between Griffin’s voice (an instrument which would be easy to use as a crutch) and the sonic opportunities afforded by her song structures. The brushed snares of “You’ll Remember” evoke a smoky club, while the oblique, metaphoric bus trip of “Stay on the Ride” features funky horns. The delicate piano of “Burgundy Shoes” evokes the stately opening of “Mother of God” (Griffin’s trademark piano intros are consistently lovely), while the horns of “No Bad News” sound like Calexico slipped in the back door. Griffin’s duet with Emmylou Harris on “Trapeze” nicely showcases both their strengths, wrapping Griffin’s smooth voice with Harris’ grainy, sliding notes like they were wisps of smoke. And while the lyrics to “Up to the Mountain (MLK Song)” are your standard gospel fare, the song succeeds on church-echoey piano and Griffin’s impassioned vocals.
So it would be easy to let Children Running Through glide by on perfect production alone, not to mention the fact that this is Patty Griffin, a woman who could sing the contents of a restaurant menu in such a way that you’d think she were narrating your own hopes and fears. But when you start to dig in, some of the foundations seem a little weak. I guess it would be fair to call the lyrics “stark” or “minimalist”, but overall, they occasionally leave this listener wanting, regardless of how well they’re presented, or of how modest Griffin’s intentions were. Even “Burgundy Shoes”, which follows the Griffin template as well as anything, feels more like a snapshot — like one of those vivid memories that comes to you out of the blue — than an actual narrative.
So in the end, you have the usual excellent Patty Griffin record, but not for the usual reasons. The production and arrangements truly shine, showcasing Griffin in a new way, one that discards the easy (and limiting) concept of Griffin as a songwriter’s songwriter, and which places the spotlight back on her ability to perform. And even though Children Running Through won’t satisfy lyrical junkies from start to finish, it still contains enough traces of Griffin’s way with words to show that she hasn’t lost her touch.