Patty Griffin's Impossible Dream comes with a word of caution from the artist:
"There's no ear candy this time," she says.
A veteran listener could be forgiven for wondering what in the world she's talking about. Every Patty Griffin album offers, often simultaneously, beauty and challenge. The depth of her lyric writing and the intensity of her singing have never relented, and if her last studio album, 1000 Kisses, ended on the exultant note of the Mexican ballad, "Mil Besos," every second of that exultation felt honestly earned for both singer and audience.
But Impossible Dream does return her to a world of even greater emotional and social turmoil, the world in which her "Truth #2" became, for her friends the Dixie Chicks, the song that spoke most clearly about what it's like to be censored. Griffin doesn't write protest music, but songs like "Don't Come Easy" and "Cold As It Gets" come straight out of a way of seeing the world with politicized eyes. At times here, Griffin sounds like one of her great influences, James Baldwin, never more so than on the opening track, "Love Throws a Line," where the point is that either we catch on to the value of loving one another or we're all sunk.
"There really has to be a time of awakening in our civilization," she says, "or we're gonna lose some things we take for granted. Most of all, we have to start paying attention to each other and the planet."
Like Baldwin, Griffin makes it hard to see where the personal and the political separate-or perhaps, shows us how they really don't. For Impossible Dream probably ranks as her most personal album. From the beginning, Patty Griffin songs have spoken in the voices of others-older people, particularly, which happens again here in "Top of the World" (which also has been done by the Dixie Chicks) and "Mother of God." But many more of the songs this time speak straight from the singer. At times, she speaks so directly, it's as if she's peering into the listener's face to measure whether she's getting through.
In part, that's because she decided on this album she would "edit less and return to some basic things where I started." Prominent among these: black gospel music. Seeing Mavis Staples live for the first time not long before the sessions began cinched the deal. "I really love the music," Patty says. "Its messages are heavy and painful, but at the end of Mavis singing something like 'God's Not Sleeping,' you feel happy." She'd moved away from that influence because "at some point, I made a conscious decision not to sing that music-nothing worse than bad white blues." But tracks like "Love Throws a Line," clearly modeled on the jaunty rhythms of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and "Standing," with its portentous beat, knife-edge guitar licks and testifying dynamic evoking classic pre-pop Staples Singers, reflect the best kind of white adaptation of black religious music.
But that's only one flavor on the record. She uses many of the same musicians who made the quiet music on 1000 Kisses to rock on tracks like "Cold As It Gets" and "Useless Desires." The backing vocals of Emmylou Harris, producer Craig Ross, and Buddy and Julie Miller add Americana flavor.
Impossible Dream is personal in another way, too. The title song, or an abbreviated vesion of it, is sung by her parents, dedicated amateur singers who, Patty remembered, loved the Man of LaMancha original cast album when she was a kid. That track stands dead center on a record where home is a place lost, found, fled, and longed for. For Patty, Impossible Dream speaks "from a time when people thought about nobility, when they were trying to be above greed."
Clearly, that's not this time, but then another of Patty Griffin's great subjects is feeling out of place. In the same lyric where she wonders if she's ever going to make it home, she makes a promise, the promise that lies at the heart of this record, the heart of her art:
If you break down, I'll drive out and find you/If you forget my love, I'll try to remind you/I'll stay by you when it don't come easy/When it don't come easy.
That's not ear candy. It's soul food.