Beginning with 1996’s Trampoline, Joe Henry began leaving behind his work’s more overt country influences in favor of a sound that was — no matter what touchstones you might hear on a given album — distinctly Joe Henry. He could write a simple love song, or craft a metaphoric account of seeing an elderly Willy Mays at Home Depot, or coax Ornette Coleman into the studio for a masterful “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation”. But no matter what he was doing — even if it meant bringing in jazz musicians like Brian Blade, Brad Mehldau, and Marc Ribot as he did for 2001’s Scar — Henry was always homing in on this sound he heard in his head.
The resulting pursuit has given us a five-album run that’s seen each record surpassing the one that came before, and you couldn’t help but wonder if Henry wasn’t approaching that lofty place where he’d perfected his sound to such a fine-grained degree that there were no surprises left. Thankfully, Blood from Stars offers comfort in that it’s not only perhaps the best Joe Henry record yet, but also one that takes us to yet another place we didn’t expect to go.
Perhaps due to his recent work producing Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s A Stranger Here and Allen Toussaint’s The Bright Mississippi, Henry finds himself using the blues as a starting point on Blood from Stars. This being a Joe Henry record, though, it’s important to note the “starting point” part. Many of Blood‘s songs start off with traditional blues patterns, but it’s not long until participants like Ribot, pianist Jason Moran, and even Henry’s 17-year-old saxophonist son Levon Henry take things off in uncharted directions.
But while Blood teems with exploration, it’s also a record with one foot in the past. “The Man I Keep Hid” owes a clear debt to the Fats Waller/Randy Newman school of sly piano melodies, while Chet Baker wouldn’t sound out of place singing over the delicate acoustic guitar and saxophone of “Over Her Shoulder”. “Death to the Storm”, with its woozy lurch, and “Progress of Love (Dark Ground)”, with its nighttime carnival feel, tread in the same sepia-toned lands as Tom Waits’s more sentimental efforts.
In fact, Waits is an excellent reference point for Blood from Stars (and not just because Marc Ribot’s mind-boggling guitar work and little-known abilities on coronet are plentiful). The ambient nature of the instruments, the way you can feel the sound moving around in the room, are cut from the same cloth as Waits’s Weimar revivalism and Tin Pan Alley tearjerkers. But I’d argue that Waits rarely had compositions that built upon themselves, and spiraled upwards and outwards, like the most ambitious songs on Blood from Stars.
Lyrically, there’s heart to match Henry’s mixture of organic bluesiness and off-the-cuff improvisation. “All the blues sing of love and death and you as chances yet to take”, he sings on “All Blues Hail Mary”. “Progress of Love (Dark Ground)” finds him musing, “Our every word now is a talking blues / A hymn to the life we’re all bound to lose”. As the album goes on, it takes on a thoughtful nighttime feel. And it’s that self-reflection, in addition to Henry’s already well-established storytelling abilities, that lifts Blood from Stars to a new place, showing us that just because Henry’s found his sound, he’s not going to stop looking for surprises.