In many respects, art is about the process that goes into the creation of the work as much as the work itself; the path that leads to a final creative vision can often mean as much to the art as the physical technique or the initial inspiration. It's a process not unlike faith, in which the road to spiritual understanding plays a powerful role in informing one's beliefs, and both art and faith play a crucial role in Patty Griffin's seventh album, Downtown Church. While Griffin has described herself as a "lapsed Catholic," she's also spoken of herself as a seeker who believes in the spiritual dimensions of music, and she's a passionate devotee of classic gospel music, with the influences showing clearly on her 2007 album, Children Running Through. On Downtown Church, Griffin has given her gospel influences free reign; while it features two fine new songs from her, most of the album is devoted to vintage gospel of all stripes, from Hank Williams' "House of Gold" and Dorothy Love Coates' "The Strange Man" to traditional numbers such as "Wade in the Water," "If I Had My Way," and "Never Grow Old." Downtown Church was recorded in Nashville's Downtown Presbyterian Church, and while it's hard to say how much that informed the mood of the sessions, Griffin's vocals here possess a fierce passion bordered by a touching emotional fragility, as if she's fully aware of the gravity of the themes at hand, and means to give them the consideration they deserve. Griffin is also accompanied by a number of gifted friends and colleagues; Buddy Miller produced the album, and his spectral guitar lines weave their way through many of the songs, while the guest vocalists include Emmylou Harris, Raul Malo, Jim Lauderdale, and gospel stars Ann McCrary and Regina McCrary, all of whom add to the richness of this music while never leaving any question that this is truly Griffin's album. Griffin has certainly learned a lot from vital gospel artists of the past, but rather than emulate their style, she's absorbed them and used their influences to create something of her own, and along the way, one can hear her digging deep into the meanings of these songs as well as appreciating the beauty on the surface. Griffin sounds bold on "I Smell a Rat," fervent on "The Strange Man," and almost in awe of the simple faith and complex mysteries of "All Creatures of Our God and King," and just as she's not afraid to step into the musical unknown, she's sincere and assured as she considers the depth of faith expressed in these songs. It's no surprise that Downtown Church is a beautiful album, as Patty Griffin has been making beautiful albums since 1996, but here she's reaching for something deeper than she has on much her previous work, and the search that informed these 14 songs is compelling and joyous to hear, regardless of your religious convictions.