Six years ago, folk singer-songwriter Patty Griffin released her best album to date, Children Running Through. Her new one, American Kid, might top that stunning achievement. Combining Americana with folk rock songs that actually emphasize the “rock” part of the term, American Kid, a tribute to Griffin’s late father, recalls another recent instant Americana classic, also partially written about the singer-songwriter’s father: Anaïs Mitchell’s brilliant Young Man In America. Much like Mitchell’s, Griffin’s ambiguous tales on American Kid journey from old stories to contemporary tales of economic urgency and pure longing.
Griffin rejects the notion of specific place and time on American Kid. The record tackles the truths and falsities of the myth that is America through atmosphere rather than through meticulous detail. But the record establishes itself in real-world locations on two of its best songs, the slow-burner Ohio and the rollicking Don’t Let Me Die In Florida, if it wasn’t for the fact that those songs only ground themselves in real places in order to quickly reject the idea of grounding at all; the characters on these songs and on American Kid in general “walk for miles”. They’re basically homeless.
On Don’t Let Me Die In Florida, Griffin wishes to die namelessly, ambiguously, and anonymously: “Please don’t let me die in Florida / I don’t care about my name / If you catch me dying in Orlando / Throw my bed onto a train.” And later we get: “I don’t need to see no mirror / I am never to see my own face / Just a reflection of somebody / Who’s gonna leave without a trace.” The themes of Don’t Let Me Die In Florida set the ambiguous nature of the rest of the album, which works on multiple levels, from Griffin’s attempt to keep the mysterious aura of her late father alive to a veiled political statement that the American Kid only exists and thrives in said myth.
In fact, throughout American Kid, Griffin takes normally untouchable figures and not only makes them tangible but presents them as vulnerable. Most notably, on standout track Wild Dog, Griffin equates God to, yes, a wild dog. In the world Griffin creates on American Kid, you can weep for those that used to be powerful and influential, even if that person used to be an all-knowing and fear-inducing God. So, on Wild Dog, Griffin is not necessarily referring to any sort of religious God, but perhaps rather the quintessentially American tendency to treat God as, well, American, and justify actions based on so-called God-given rights. Griffin’s not caring for those for whom using God to establish credibility didn’t work out. She feels bad for the wild old dog himself.
Lastly, on American Kid’s family-themed tracks, Griffin keeps it simultaneously intimate but relatable by, again, depersonalizing her characters. Mom & Dad’s Waltz and Faithful Son provide Griffin’s takes on familial loyalty over some of the most beautiful instrumentation on the album, from banjo plucks to acoustic guitar. Overall, the sequencing of the album in terms of subject matter works extremely effectively. As Griffin is wary of including too many family-themed songs in a row, Highway Song, an immaculately produced, spacious, echoey track, immediately follows Mom & Dad’s Waltz and Faithful Son, as if to say that sometimes faith and loyalty doesn’t last, and to the point where the characters at large embark on an endless journey. It’s then hard not to interpret the following song, That Kind Of Lonely, as the end result of the arc of the previous three: someone starts off loyal to his family, runs away, but eventually realizes the pain of loneliness. So goes the woes of the mythical American kid. So goes one of the best albums of the year so far.