TBTS Reviews: Joe Henry’s Reverie
Chances are, the best songwriter you don’t know about is Joe Henry. He’s been making excellent albums of his own for years now, but his primary claim to fame is as a producer of other people’s records – everyone from Mose Allison to Over the Rhine, and since most people can’t tell you what a record producer actually does, I’d say it sums up Henry’s place in the world nicely: quiet, underappreciated excellence.
I became aware of Joe Henry in 2009, when his album Blood From Stars was slipped into my bookstore’s overhead rotation by our savvy music manager, Bobby. One quiet weekday night, I found myself alone at the music desk when the album came on, and for the first time I got a clear chance to hear the whole thing with little interruption. As the album played I became aware that I was listening to something with more complexity and depth than anything I’d heard in a good long while, and before long I knew I had to have the thing. Soon after, I learned just how long Henry’s been at it – long enough to have opened for long-defunct Uncle Tupelo years ago at the equally long-defunct Lexington venue The Wrocklage, when he was another alt-country artist sailing the stormy, pirate-infested Nashville sea. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time with his old albums, something made easy by Henry himself, who streams most of his back catalogue on his website, www.joehenrylovesyoumadly.com. (And really, how can you resist someone who calls his website something like that?) I’ve come to see his discography as a ladder, or perhaps a set of monkey bars – each album is a distinct step in a new direction, but it helps to have a handle on the last one to get a good grasp of the next.
And so we come to Reverie. Blood From Stars was Henry’s darkest album, full of moody jazz-blues arrangements and lyrics seemingly written under a pall of doom, sounding like something Tom Waits might have done except with more meditative clarity and less nightmare-cabaret showmanship. Reverie begins in that album’s shadow, a logical step in a direction away from that dark alley. Appropriately enough given the album’s title, once he’s cleared the penumbra of Blood From Stars Henry seems to walk backwards for a while, keeping his feet while looking back as far as twenty years, calling back sounds from the early-90s albums Short Man’s Room and Kindness of the World with songs like “Odetta” and “Eyes Out For You”. Reverie isn’t a retrospective in the strictest sense, but it feels like one at times, someone taking a shot doing things he used to do just to see if he can do it better in light of what he knows now. The short answer is yes, yes he can.
Blood From Stars relied heavily on the piano and the saxophone, but here Henry pairs Marc Ribot’s guitar with a piano in almost every song while maintaining a smooth musical transition from that album’s tone. Largely absent from Reverie are the non-instrumental flourishes featured on Blood From Stars, the samples of spoken words and other sounds connecting song to song, instead letting the music stand without further embroidery. It’s strange to say it, but it feels like a bold departure not to include those things, given that they’ve been a feature of his albums at least since 1999’s Fuse.
Henry has reached a point in his career where everything in one of his songs feels well-considered, like he might have spent days deciding on this or that element’s inclusion. Nowhere is Henry’s deliberation so evident as in his lyrics. This is a man who weighs every word carefully, a writer’s songwriter through and through, and his albums feel as much like a masterfully built collection of short stories as they do a collection of songs. Reverie, like Blood From Stars before it, rewards a listener’s care and persistence, revealing new layers of meaning each time through. There’s a lot of strong imagery and beauty there for a patient person to find, but there’s plenty to be had on a first listen, too. Consider the opening of “Heaven’s Escape”, the first track:
They’re showing a movie on the side of the bank
Oh, I’m in love with all creation
And the warmth of the hood of the car in the dark
Oh, I feel I’m an angel in waiting
Where time is a lie in the dark of your face
In the battles we’ve won, lost or misplaced
In the promise of heaven and the hope of its gaze
Oh, I can just see it now
But how, my love, will we escape?
Lots of songwriters get called “poetic”, and usually it’s a weak, throwaway compliment, sort of like calling an album “musical”. But there’s poetic and then there’s poetic, the sense that the lyrics would stand on their own if read in silence from a page. Almost no songwriters deserve a book of collected lyrics, but if Joe Henry doesn’t get one, it’s a shame and a crime.
Reverie comes with my highest recommendation. While you’re at it, go check out the rest of his catalogue. You’ll wonder what took you so long.