1996 was one heck of a year for American roots music. You had Johnny Cash recording Unchained, possibly the greatest album of his long, long career, with Rick Rubin and Tom Petty. Outlaw country legend Steve Earle telling the world I Feel Alright after a long bout of drug addiction. Wilco announcing their arrival as a major player on the scene with sophomore album Being There. Jon Spencer and the Blues Explosion’s punk, techno, and blues-tinged rock album Now I Got Worry and their collaboration with the great R.L. Burnside on his punk, techno, and rock-tinged blues album A Ass Pocket of Whiskey. The Australian Nick Cave filling traditional American songs with overwhelming dread in his masterpiece Murder Ballads, and 16 Horsepower taking folk tradition to even darker places in the apocalyptic Sackcloth ‘n’ Ashes. You’d think it’d be hard to stand out in the midst of all that, but the most powerful of them all was a debut album by a slight, unassuming New England divorcee.
Patty Griffin’s story plays out like a real-life version of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, with Griffin taking the end of her marriage as a catalyst to pursue her dream of musical stardom. She sent a demo tape of just her and a guitar to A&M Records. Superproducer/Chic frontman Nile Rodgers loved it, but he was unsatisfied with all the attempts to clean it up for mass consumption. So in the end, he just said fuck it and released Griffin’s demo tape unedited.
Nile Rodgers is not exactly a man who’s known for minimalism, so when he makes a decision like that, you know it means something. And he was exactly right. You can’t improve on a record that lands in your office already perfect. Living with Ghosts gets at what draws people to folk music. That age-old power of sitting in the same room with a musician around a hearth or campfire, nothing standing between you and the music.
For reasons known only to my parents, I came to Living with Ghosts years after discovering their collection of Griffin’s later, more polished albums — the oldest Griffin record they owned is 2002’s 1000 Kisses, so apparently they didn’t know about her before then and took years to cycle back to the beginning. Either way, Living with Ghosts was a revelation. Griffin evolved into a refined, motherly figure on her later albums. Living with Ghosts is the farthest thing from that. This is a pure, unadulterated howl of youthful rage and despair.
Griffin’s proven she can belt like a soul diva, but there’s nothing in her catalog like the banshee wail she unleashes here. Maybe she never could unleash it again. She screams with so much power on this album it may have scraped her vocal cords raw. But Griffin’s incredible range is already present here. Living with Ghosts opens with a scream, and it ends with a whisper.
Her next album, Flaming Red, the first with studio production, is an awkward, intriguing road not taken, an attempt to fit her into the world of grunge rock, Lilith Fair, and riot grrl. It sticks out like a sore thumb in her traditionalist discography, but it’s much more understandable without the benefit of hindsight. Living with Ghosts is just as raw and angry as anything from Tori Amos or Courtney Love, just with nothing but that lone acoustic guitar to underline it.
Griffin’s persona is wildly different from what it became. Describing one of those later albums, I called her voice on this one “the deeply unlikely lovechild of Bob Dylan and Marilyn Monroe,” with the arch, unconventional, half-spoken attitude of the one and the breathy, coo-y sexiness of the other. In other words, it’s a young woman’s album with all the skepticism and sincerity of youth.
Living with Ghosts draws from the experience that led to its creation, most explicitly on “Let Him Fly.” That song, like “Time Will Do the Talking” regards Griffin’s dying relationship from a distance, from the perspective of someone with the wisdom to regard the inevitable with serene acceptance. But that’s not the mood at all on the raw, assaultive breakup songs “You Never Get What You Want” and “Every Little Bit.” “You Never Get What You Want” opens with Griffin sneering “You first found me in my holding pen/Stopped to take a look and stuck your finger in/I bit one off and you came back again and again.” It’s the kind of thing that could sound try-hard coming from a lesser artist, especially one doing such a total 180 from the persona Griffin projects for most of the album, but she hisses it out with such venom you have no choice to believe it.
“Every Little Bit” gets at the same effect from the opposite angle, letting Griffin’s rage simmer through a husky, almost whispered vocal in the chorus, making the moment Griffin repeats the title, building in frenzy until words become insufficient and she starts screaming wordlessly land like an atom bomb. Both tracks make the most of Griffin’s limited resources as she plays the guitar subtly off key to create a dark, maddening mood. Near the end of “You Never Get What You Want,” her rage seems to boil over and the steady backing descends into frantic strumming like the acoustic-guitar equivalent of banging on the keys.
But the songs that really get to me, the ones that I confessed in my Impossible Dream review had me crying into my coffee, turn the personal into the universal. More importantly, they’re the quietest ones, the ones that sneak up on you and knife you in the heart. By that I mean the one-two gut punch of “Poor Man’s House” and “Forgiveness.”
“Poor Man’s House” is another one that throws off your equilibrium by manipulating the melody. It also reveals the album’s demo-tape origins. Griffin’s vocals are soft and tentative, and she hits some of the notes flat. But instead of undermining the song’s power, this just enhances the intimacy and honesty of it. And it’s the reason I can pinpoint the exact moment the tears started that morning last year, when Griffin suddenly turns from the whispered sadness of “Your daddy is poor today, and/He will be poor tomorrow” to the screaming despair of “Your daddy is poor today, and/He will be poor forever.”
“Forgiveness” picks up from there, turning from the world of the concrete to pure metaphor, opening with Griffin plainly, chillingly, singing, “We are swimming with the snakes/At the bottom of the well.” I’m hesitant to write down some of these lyrics, because you can’t really put into words the way her voice animates the despair of “The planes keep flying right overhead/No matter how long we shout” before shouting herself, stretching her voice to the breaking point as if the planes really were right overhead, or the transcendent hopefulness of “Open your eyes boy/I think we made it through the night,” or the moment she takes you to church when she belts out “And I raised my voice to the air/And we were blessed.”
Like the greatest works of art, Living with Ghosts has a power that can’t be dissected, analyzed, or justified. Like all of them, it simply demands to be experienced on its own terms.