Downtown Church, Patty Griffin’s seventh album, is the equivalent of a slow walk into a field of wildflowers — a journey in which you look up at a bluebird sky and take a deep breath with your eyes closed. It sounds like the soundtrack to a spiritual awakening, which makes sense, given that it’s a gospel album: On it, two Griffin originals rub alongside gospel standards, including “Wade in the Water” and “Waiting for My Child.”
It was EMI’s Peter York who first suggested that Griffin record an album of gospel songs — not such a strange idea, if you think about it. After all, she’s got the huge vocal range necessary to sing gospel music, along with years of experience writing about life, loss, praise and sorrow. It’s also not so strange when you consider that Griffin herself has long believed that gospel music is the foundation of, well, everything.
She got to work with Buddy Miller (among other friends, including Emmylou Harris, Jim Lauderdale and a couple members of the royal family of gospel, Regina and Ann McCrary), producing an album that’s so mesmerizing, it’s difficult to believe Griffin isn’t a card-carrying member of The Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville. (That’s where she recorded the album last January.)
But what makes Downtown Church even more relevant — and, frankly, more touching — is that Griffin says she’s working through complicated feelings about religion and her own sense of faith. Downtown Church is her way of exploring those feelings. For the rest of us, the music is just plain good. And, for some of us, it’s a feel-good re-introduction to ideas and feelings that might be uncomfortably familiar.