Inasmuch as the hip and influential pop elite continue to chart territories that reflect a restless adventurousness, the true musical pioneers visualize the genres, the trends as mere window dressing choosing instead to focus on the meat, the songs.
Joe Henry’s eighth full outing finds him a bit ahead of the crowd yet again even as his alternative country musings on 1992’s Short Man’s Room and 1993’s Kindness of the World very much presaged the new Americana experienced in the last couple of years. By 1996’s Trampoline, he had completely abandoned country leanings to delve into more rhythm-based compositions, veering into hip-hop and funk. Henry fine-tunes this experiment on 1999’s Fuze with the aid of producers Daniel Lanois and T-Bone Burnett.
Which brings us to Scar, Henry’s maiden offering for the 21st century, in which he quite obviously infuses his basic rustic approach with excursions into jazz. One might even be flip enough to describe this as Bob Dylan fronting Steely Dan, though you will not see me using that handle! Right from the opening dirge blues (ala the later material of American Music Club) of “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation”, you become keenly aware that Scar promises to be an interesting journey through Henry’s expanded tastes. This view is cemented when the great Ornette Coleman provides a solo that lifts this lament above the clouds.
Henry’s ambition never appears to be sated as he employs a rich tango on “Stop”, previously covered by Madonna; a melancholy Memphis soul on “Mean Flower” with an intensity that beggars belief; an upbeat swing beat on “Rough and Tumble”, as sexual and violent imagery collide; a Hendrix-esque jazz-funk on “Nico Lost One Small Buddha”, a Tin Pan Alley show tune on “Cold Enough to Cross”, which flashbacks to a kinder, gentler era; a more familiar folk method on “Edgar Bergen”, epic strings providing strong counterpoints and finally a sweet ballad on the title track, resplendent with its nylon acoustic picking and Henry’s ghostly vocal delivery.
With the bonus of another Coleman contribution on the hidden “Pryor Reprise”, Scar is grown-up music for people who want to stay young forever. Outrageously brilliant.