Monday, October 31, 2005

Joe Henry and the Soundtrack to Addiction

My favorite singer/songwriter these days is a guy with the unassuming name of Joe Henry. He started in the late '80s as an alt-country/rootsy troubadour, and recorded several excellent albums with The Jayhawks as his backing band and with T-Bone Burnett producing. But in the mid-'90s he took a left turn into an atmospheric mix of folk and funk and soul and jazz that defies easy categorization. It's late-night lounge music of a sort, a mix of Sinatra salloon singer and Dylanesque surrealism, but it's way, way off kilter, as if the lounge might exist on one of the outer moons of Saturn. It's eerily beautiful, and always, always, always, just slightly bent. Just when you think he's going to come up with a hummable chorus, he throws in yet another dischordant note. I love his unpredictability.

He's also an amazing lyricist. If Dylan hadn't shown the capacity to occasionally rouse himself and produce great music in his dotage, I'd tell you that he's the logical successor to Dylan. As it is, Joe Henry is brilliant and disturbing, spinning out the stuff of nightmares, but with startling imagery and beautiful insight. Here are the lyrics to two songs about addiction. He doesn't only write about addiction. But if you're going to put together a soundtrack for Addiction: The Movie, I can't think of two better places to start.

Sometimes I think I've almost fooled myself
Sometimes I think I've almost fooled myself--
Spreading out my wings
Above us like a tree,
Laughing now, out loud
Almost like I was free

I look at you as the thing I wanted most
You look at me and it's like you've seen a ghost
I wear the face
Of all this has cost:
Everything you tried to keep away from me,
Everything I took from you and lost

Lights shine above me, they're like your eyes above the street
Lights shine below me, they're like stars beneath my feet
I stood on your shoulders
And I walked on my hands,
You watched me while I tried to fall
You can't bear to watch me land

Take me away, carry me like a dove
Take me away, carry me like a dove
Love me like you're lying
Let me feel you near,
Remember me for trying
And excuse me while I disappear
-- Joe Henry, “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation”

You wild beasts and you creeping things
Get down in your place,
Down with all the absolutes
And God's awful grace.
Who wants to see this coming?
Who wants to think you do?
Better to be blind
when I'm
Falling for you

Go and tell old Pharaoh
His time has come about,
His pretty houseboys laugh and sing
As they're filing out.
They set fire behind them
I see it burning into view,
High upon the mountain
where I'm
Falling for you

All manner of abandon
Is just the thing we need,
Get ready for the country, boys,
The town has gone to seed.
The telephone line is sagging
With word coming through:
Put your head between your knees, I'm
Falling for you

I can quit this anytime,
It's just to help me sleep,
It stops the tiny voices
And strange hours that they keep.
Who wants to hear them bleating on,
And have to answer too?
Better to be dumb
when I'm
Falling for you

So you ladies and you gentlemen--
Pull your bloomers on,
Swing up on the highest beam
And let the floods come on.
Who wants to be there wondering,
When the Wonders rage on through?
Better to say never
when I'm
Falling for you
-- Joe Henry, “Tiny Voices (Falling For You)”


teddy dellesky said...

was joe on the jayhawk's first album? (hollywood town hall) that is by far my most favorite album by them.

Andy Whitman said...

No, Joe isn't on "Hollywood Town Hall." I love that album, too. But it's that same incarnation of the Jayhawks (specifically, Olson and Louris) who really add a lot to the two Joe Henry albums from around that same time period. One is called "Short Man's Room," and the other is called "Fireman's Wedding." They're wonderful; you should check 'em out. In fact, I'll bring 'em Sunday so you can check 'em out.

There's an earlier Jayhawks album called "Blue Earth" that predates "Hollywood Town Hall." A couple of the songs there were reworked a bit and later appeared on "Hollywood Town Hall." I have two copies. Want one?

teddy dellesky said...

absolutely. if you bring them on sunday, give them to jamie as i will be out of town.