Fans of meticulously crafted story-songs in a grand American tradition might be eagerly awaiting the new Bruce Springsteen album. But there is little reason to suffer the delay when the new album by Joe Henry, Civilians, is so flat-out moving and beautiful.
Joe Henry has been operating in a variety of shadows since the mid-’80s. First as an alt-country troubadour like Steve Earle, then as a neo-roots folkie with a bleak case of The Band then later as a Tom Waits-ish experimenter with an ear for trip-hop. He has also been a producer for the likes of Solomon Burke and Elvis Costello, and even a soundtrack collaborator for this summer’s hit comedy Knocked Up. His least shadowy incarnation is as the brother-in-law of Madonna, with whom he has recorded a duet and who recorded a version of his song “Stop”.
Henry’s recent work, however, deserves the spotlight treatment. Civilians boasts a couple of high-profile collaborators (Pet Sounds lyricist and pianist Van Dyke Parks and jazz guitarist Bill Frisell), but it is unflinchingly focused on Henry’s stunning songwriting. Though Henry works mostly in the first person and has a voice with a Dylanesque intimacy, his material is not classic “confessional” songcraft. Rather, he operates like Tom Waits or Steely Dan in making tiny musical film noirs, chilling tales set against a rough-but-lush Americana soundscape. The total package builds slowly but triumphantly like a collection of eerily linked short stories.
How are you going to argue with a song like “Time is a Lion”? Henry’s jaded-but-wise narrator addresses some less weathered friend, daring the friend to find optimism when “I am a shadow and I’m falling on you”. The music is a raw mixture of acoustic piano, blues guitar, thumping drums, and shouted background vocals. “Death and disgrace can seduce anyone / That needs to believe there’s judgment at hand / God may be kind and see you like a son / But time is a lion and you are a lamb”. The tune is absolutely chilling, but it has a marching thump that makes you want to listen again.
“Our Song” rings like an instant masterpiece waiting to be covered. “I saw Willie Mays at a Scottsdale Home Depot / Looking at garage door springs at the far end of the 14th floor”, sung over a slow groove backed by moo-ing organ and echoing drum slaps. Your ears practically jump off your head. The Hall of Famer, in Henry’s story, laments the weary state of our country. “This was our country / This frightful and this angry land / But it’s my right if the worst of it / Might still somehow make me a better man”. This mournful chorus is accompanied by a beautiful string quartet arrangement as well.
The great craft in Civilians is not just in the lyrics but also in these potentially incongruous arrangements. Dirty roots grooves suddenly blossom into unsentimental string playing, acoustic strumming that is given a bold snare crack and chiming guitars, supplemented by mandolin in “Wave”. A half-drunk lounge piano drops into a little stride groove over a strangely vibrating organ lick in “I Will Write My Book”. What seems at first haphazard turns out to be deliciously moving.
It’s in the sound of the record that Henry’s recent work as a producer pays off. His respect for the craft and history of Solomon Burke or Allen Toussaint is transformed here into a proper distance and respect for his own writing. In some spots the disc is stripped down and folkie, while in other spots it plays like a kind of country-chamber music. If there is knock on it, it may be in this studied consistency. It is shot-through with brooding and an aching earnestness that is never less than soulful but is never rocking. Those Springsteen fans, (who should like this), would be quick to note that The Boss delivers his depressing miniatures amidst some anthemic uplift. Fans of Tom Waits may find that the album lacks an artful theatricality that could dilute Henry’s baleful straight face.
That said, Civilians does its own business with accuracy and emotion. While not a party record, not an album to bring to an Indian summer barbeque, this album remains powerful and exquisite. It’s gut-stirring in the most direct way. Each song seems to shoot straight for a tear duct or for your sense of shame and regret.
“God Only Knows” is as perfect a song as I’ve heard this year. It has as much beautiful lament as a Billie Holiday record. The lovely piano part is accompanied by brushes on a snare, and Henry sings a captivating rise-and-fall melody. “Lovers laugh and cross this way / Weaving out into the street / It seems we never were so young / Or it was never quite so sweet / But the world is always beautiful / When it seemed in for a treat / The worst of life looks beautiful / Cause it slips away from a treat”. There’s nostalgia and fear and cynicism and hope all mixed up into a series of vivid images and sound. It’s the very best of what American songcraft can give us.