Joe Henry and the Complex, Varied Worlds of Civilians
For me, there are a handful of musicians who inspire unbroken dedication, the kind that will make me drop everything to run to the record store when they release new material. And I don’t just mean run to the record store, I mean call ahead to have the disc put on hold—so that my evening or afternoon’s aural revelation is guaranteed. It goes further still: I have to clear out a time free from distraction to listen in pristine silence, positioned in the sweet spot on the couch with only the company of my second or third alcoholic libation. One of those musicians is Joe Henry.
He has had a strange and varied career, releasing a number of albums since the mid-1980s, exploring at various points rock, country and folk, but apparently hitting his stride only during the last decade. I can’t claim familiarity with the early part of his career, but I’ve followed him and hung on every note since first hearing “Fat” (from his 1999 album Fuse) on WDET-FM in Detroit. The song had a slow, funky groove and some of the most arch, elliptical lyrics I’ve ever heard. If you were to take the wry, observational gift that Tom Waits has and pair it, say, with the prose of Borges, you’d be close to understanding what I think. The first chorus of “Like She Was a Hammer,” another track on the album, is a good example: “Like she was the railroad / Like she was the lost world / Like she was the big hand turning back the sea / Like she was the raging flower in the brickyard / Like she was the only thing holding on to me.” It’s about as brilliant a description of something dysfunctional as anyone might ever pen.
Henry excels at more than writing lyrics, though. He possesses remarkable skills where writing songs and arrangements that are at once tension-filled and world-weary is concerned. He also has a knack for attracting top-notch musical collaborators. More on them in a moment.
One of the standout tracks on his next album, 2001’s Scar, was the opener, “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation.” The song was reportedly inspired by Henry seeing a poster/postcard with Richard Pryor dressed in white standing in front of an American flag. Henry was so struck by the incongruity of the image that he wrote a slow, blues-based tune using the scenario of Pryor addressing the nation on a somber occasion and, at the same time, reflecting on his contradictory relationship to the country of his birth. The song features a number of jazz-identified musicians, among them drummer Brian Blade, pianist Brad Mehldau and guitarist Marc Ribot. But when the assembled group recorded the song, it deliberately left a hole between the bridge and the third verse for a solo.
As Henry related the story in a May 2001 feature in GQ, he spent a great deal of time thinking about who might complete that space, only to realize that he needed to find someone who had just as contradictory and tangled relationship to the United States and its history of racial inequality as Pryor did. So he did some digging and sent a package with Fuse and a mix of the tune in question to the person he thought would be perfect, someone who incidentally rarely makes appearances on recordings that are not his own. After hearing the material, said person invited Henry to New York, had a lengthy conversation with him and agreed to participate in the project.
And thus it was that one of the most bracing moments in rock recording came to be: at the end of the bridge (roughly the 3:26 mark), following the words “I stood on your shoulders / And I walked on my hands / You watched me while I tried to fall / You couldn’t bear to watch me land (to try and land…),” Ornette Coleman’s plaintive, urgent alto saxophone playing becomes the spiky icing on the cake. His solo builds to a climactic shriek at 4:14 before slowly taking listeners back down to earth. There are a number of other striking and sublime moments on the disc (as well as its followup, 2003’s Tiny Voices—which features Don Byron and Ron Miles), but they’ll have to wait for some other time. (One I can’t resist telling obliquely is the one about his song “Stop,” a tune that has a special relationship to his sister-in-law’s hit song “Don’t Tell Me.” See the Trivia section of this Wikipedia article for the details.)
After that 2003 release, Henry seemed to put his recording career on the backburner. While he has done production before, most notably on Solomon Burke’s Don’t Give Up on Me,the last three-plus years seemed to be ones in which Henry became better known as a producer. Seeming to go from strength to strength, his production brought focus and luster to projects as diverse as Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm and Bettye Lavette’s I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise (both from 2005). And yet, though I’ve enjoyed all of the projects with Henry behind the desk, so to speak, I have nonetheless yearned to hear more of his new work as a performer.
Thus, when I was scanning a list of new releases on Wednesday morning, I learned that Henry’s latest project, Civilians, had shown up in stores the day before. I immediately put the computer to sleep, I pulled on a pair of jeans and walked to the store. I wasn’t able to give the album either time or dedicated space for listening until this morning, but what a glorious morning it was.
I was experiencing aural bliss mere seconds into the opening, title track. There were Henry’s voice—with a slight dry echo—a buoyant acoustic bass, (dissonant) acoustic guitars and a string section, sounding for all the world like something out of some rollicking hybrid country, rock, jazz, circus music universe. And the chorus, with shouted background vocals, was perfect: “Oh, pray for you, pray for me / Sing it like a song / But by the grace of God / The night is long.” The second song begins more plaintively, with bass and acoustic guitars, and seems to be the story of a man disoriented and trying to face a new day. Only after hearing the bridge, where Henry speaks/sings the words “I came home this morning / I was dead on my feet, / Drunk on the victory / Of my own defeat. / Now, I’m reeling on the ceiling / But what kind of yard-bird law is this, / When a heart in chains is what remains? / The prelude to a kiss,” does the picture come into focus. The word “yard-bird” and the closing allusion to Duke Ellington’s song made me reach for the CD case, where I learned that the song’s title was “Parker’s Mood.” While Henry’s song doesn’t contain any elements of the same-named song by saxophonist Charlie Parker (also known as “Bird,” short for “Yardbird”), it could just as easily be a song about one of the musician’s difficult days shortly before his death at the age of 34 in 1955. There are, as above, other brilliant moments on this album. It’s filled with the kind of first-person, observation-based character sketches that seem intensely personal without being autobiographical. Indeed, in a January 2006 interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, Henry remarked that he strongly identified with songwriters, like Randy Newman, who weren’t writing about their own lives and opined that lyricists should have the same creative range as novelists or directors who explore humanity, not just their own lives.
As a case in point, “Our Song” seems to extend the conceit of “Richard Pryor…” by tacking back and forth between images of Willie Mays testing garage springs in a Home Depot and reflections on the state of the United States. Despite the gloomy observations that fill the song, it holds out a ray of hope in its closing lines. (Lest you think the whole album is a glum affair, pay attention not only to to the humor in the lyrics but also to Henry’s witty liner notes and album credits: e.g., “Bill Frisell appears courtesy of Nonesuch Records. Loudon Wainwright appears out of sheer courtesy alone. Van Dyke Parks appears to astonish almost everyone.”)
While Civilians is a more subdued, less experimental album than its immediate predecessors, it is still a fine piece of work. There’s not a single uptempo song, nor is there anything in which the blare of amplifiers or the most obvious studio trickery presents itself. Instead, it’s an album that demands that one sit down in a quiet place to listen, prepared to be transported to a universe inhabited by Henry’s characters and sonic sensibilities. The list of collaborators (Bill Frisell, Greg Leisz, Jay Bellerose, Van Dyke Parks, Loudon Wainwright III) makes it clear that this is adult music, but probably not the kind that you’ll be hearing in Starbucks any time soon. But I could be wrong about that. I have been before…