Nanci Griffith doesn’t quite cut it as an adult-contemporary star, and that’s no insult. Certainly, she possesses some of the necessary qualities: adept backing musicians, tasteful production and arrangements, and an immediately pleasant and memorable voice.
Like the majority of her recent output, any song from Clock Without Hands would barely stir a ripple if slipped into the continuum of a lite-favorites (or neo-Nashville) playlist. However, something in the music stubbornly works against the impression of Muzak transience. Intimacy is the key, gradually turned and lathed, that unlocks Griffith’s greater artistry. This isn’t the ersatz warmth established by lowest-common-denominator songwriting, which seeks to cuddle with everyone; it’s the true closeness of careful revelation, stories one particular person can tell best, and the trust that the listener will empathize.
Although Griffith and co-producer Ray Kennedy sometimes play up the intensely personal nature of the songs too well — strings and mandolins emerge as though someone pressed a button marked “Bittersweet” or “Mournful” — the care they display pays off overall. They make a convincing whole of the fragmenting journey that Clock Without Hands takes from the Midwest (“Roses On The 4th Of July”) to Vietnam (“Traveling Through This Part Of You”) to the aura of family (“Last Song For Mother”).
Ultimately, Griffith travels not for the destination, but for the people she meets along the way, who end up telling her something about herself that she passes along in understated but loving tones.