Joe Henry has a new album called Reverie. It's the best album I've heard this year. This is the way it often works for me, it seems. Joe Henry releases an album. It's the best album I hear that year.
I once read a review that claimed that Henry's music is an acquired taste. And it is. He himself would admit that he isn't much of a singer, and the off-kilter, woozy amalgam of Depression-era jazz, blues, and folk that accompanies his words can sound dense and foreign to modern ears attuned to accentuated dance beats or power chords. It comes across the speakers or the earbuds the way a not-quite-tuned-in radio station comes in; readily discernible, but fuzzy. That impression is only accentuated with Reverie, which leaves the windows of the recording studio wide open to pick up the sounds of passing traffic, barking dogs, and visiting mailmen. Personally, I love the sounds. But I love Depression-era jazz, blues, and folk, too. I'm weird.
If you don't particularly care for the sounds, and if you're willing to hang in there and give it a go anyway, I can't help but think you'll be amply rewarded if you pay attention to the lyrics. Songwriters are frequently called poets, but really most of them are hacks who have figured out how to rhyme. Joe Henry is a poet. By that I mean his lyrics can stand alone as legitimately layered, nuanced poetry. Dylan has done this at times, and perhaps Paul Simon, Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen in good years, but Henry has made a 20+ year career out of this, and he keeps getting better. From a songwriting standpoint, I'd stack the albums Joe Henry has made in the past ten years -- Scar, Tiny Voices, Civilians, Blood From Stars, and Reverie -- against any ten-year-run by any songwriter anywhere, anytime. Look at what he does for Richard Pryor, perfectly encapsulating a deeply conflicted life, and doing it within the context of a 12-bar blues:
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
He captures those fumbling, inarticulate moments when we know that something is stirring within but we can't name it, can't pin it down, but we know that we are fully alive, in touch with the person we are and the person we can become. He does it on Reverie with songs like "Heaven's Escape" and "Grand Street." A kid lies on top of a car hood, watching a Henry Fonda movie projected against the side of a bank. A kid -- the same kid? -- encounters a seedy hotel cook holding a door open to the back of the hotel. What happens in those two scenarios is blurry, indistinct, never explained. But these are the moments on which life hinges. Get off the car hood, or walk in the hotel door, and life proceeds one way. Stay on the car hood, walk past the hotel cook, and life proceeds another. Flannery O'Connor presents these tiny, telling moments again and again in her short stories. Sherwood Anderson does it in a marvelous short story called "Sophistication." It's the same moment Bruce Springsteen describes in "Thunder Road." Mary either gets in the car and heads off down the highway or she doesn't. And everything depends on the choice.
That's what Joe Henry does, again and again. He illuminates the ineffable. He probes the inarticulate, murky world where the light occasionally shines. He's a great songwriter.