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Andy Whitman

Joe Henry - Reverie

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Um... a link to the aforementioned declaration?

Update: Never mind. I found it on Facebook.

Can't wait to read an actual review, Andy! As I'm getting older, my eyes have developed a curious blindspot. I can't read the words "best of the year" until that year is truly over.

Well, that's fair enough, Jeffrey. It's certainly possible that I will hear a better album between now and the end of the year. Maybe. I'm also admittedly biased.

I don't know if I'll be writing a review, at least formally for publication. Life is more than a little hectic these days. I did write a new bio for Joe's page on the Anti- Records site, which you can find here. The link to the bio is on the left side of the screen.

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Sorry for outing you, Andy!

Gavin: The lyric you mention from "Grand Street" really does stand out, doesn't it? That song reminds me a bit of "This Afternoon"-- ominous details pile up, but nothing ever actually HAPPENS! It's a song only Joe Henry would, and perhaps could, write.

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Lyrically, as expected, it is a thoughtful celebration of the English language. Maybe more than any other songwriter since Bob Dylan, you can tell Henry loves the way words sound, what they mean, and the images they bring to mind. Something as small as "polished my boot on the back of my calf" just dazzles in a Joe Henry song, at least for me. My experiences with Joe Henry's previous albums have taught me this about his lyrics: some of the lyrics seem clear enough on first listen, some will make sense in time, while some of them will remain mysteries that never quite resolve. I personally wouldn't have it any other way. Bobby D and Joey H have taught me more than any other artists that there's something endlessly intriguing about a song that you can never quite fully explain.

Yes, and this is why Joe Henry is a special songwriter.

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.

Edited by Andy Whitman

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My very long review is posted, but Andy has summarized the Joe Henry magic (and the Reverie magic, in particular) much more eloquently, and certainly more concisely, than I ever could.

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Andy, you just hit possibly my very favorite Joe Henry song, perhaps my favorite song, period. Every time I return to it, and I do often, it gives me chills and punches me in the gut. I love how Henry captures both the brokenness and grace in Richard Pryor's life, a neat trick which he perfected with Charlie Parker in "Parker's Mood," another favorite Joe Henry song of mine, which I return to just as often.

Josh Hurst and I once had a conversation about how much of Bob Dylan's success may have stemmed from his ability to write songs that are truly timeless. Most of his songs in the '60s fit really well in describing that decade, but many of them also seemed quite relevant as I listened to them in the last decade or today.

Joe Henry has that gift of drawing universals out of particulars as well. When I put "Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation" or "Parker's Mood" on I always begin thinking of the brokenness and grace in the lives of these two great, but flawed men, but Henry writes these songs in such a way that they speak truths about all of us, from the postman to the pope. And so by the time these songs end I'm usually thinking of my own life, my own brokenness and God's grace. Now that's a neat trick.

Edited by Gavin Breeden

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A few verses from my favorite:

I bit off more than I can chew

It's something that I tend to do

When fewer words are what we need and how

You bite my tongue

And you can't fail me now

I rant and rail

But you can't fail me now

I lost the thread among the vines

And hung myself in story lines

That tell the tales I never would allow

God knows the name of every bird

That fills my mind like angry words

But you know all my secret heart avows...

We're taught to love the worst of us

And mercy more than life, but trust me:

Mercy's just a warning shot across the bow

I live for yours

And you can't fail me now,

I live for your mercy

And you can't fail me now,

You can't fail me now.

I'd better stop there, or many more lyrics - including "Our Song" - will start pouring out into this post.

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A few verses from my favorite:

I used to cover that song when I'd play in the local coffee shop, Jeff, and had to stop — I would became so emotionally engaged by the words that I couldn't really keep playing.

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I will only add that, in addition to writing great songs, JH also makes great records where those songs feed off of each other, comment on each other, and form complex thematic webs. For instance, we've mentioned "You Can't Fail Me Now," "Our Song," and "Parker's Mood," which are all stunning songs on their own... but what amazes about Civilians is how those songs work together to create inter-weaving stories of lovers/nations at a crossroads, and how those themes are pulled together so seamlessly and so beautifully in the finale, "God Only Knows." Just incredible-- and I think he's up to some of the same, insidious tricks on Reverie...

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American Songwriter:

On his twelfth album, Henry reconvenes the core band that made his eleventh such a revelation. The jazz trio pushes his classic Tin Pan Alley/Tom Waits structures almost, but not quite, off the rails. The songs rattle, hum, bump and grind like a drunken stripper on a creaky stage. They include elements from Sinatra styled pop crooners to pre-war blues and gospel all pumped with blood from the heart of the ensemble, in particular the clatter and thump of Jay Bellerose’s drums and pounding piano from the extraordinary Keefus Ciancia.

This material is not meant for parties or background listening;its layers, meanings and implications need to be absorbed gradually and without distractions. In Reverie, Joe Henry and his group have created a raw, raucous and messy masterpiece. It emerges from the heart and soul of musicians locked into each other’s vibe, playing off each other and allowed the freedom to wander within the haunting music’s beautiful, imposing, expansive yet stark and often subtle boundaries.

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I have a lot of work to do on this album, as with every Henry album. But that's the fun part.

The first thing that really caught my ear is the lack of straightforward tunefulness[\i] and clean tonality. Tiny Voices provided a shimmering polish atop what was essentially a pop sonority, admittedly amidst some wonderful clanking and crashing backdrops. Bloods From Stars was similarly approachable, harmonically speaking, with a musical familiarity that was only slightly twisted by Ribot's atonality and Henry's nasal swoops and slides. In contrast, I find Reverie quite a bit more rickety, tonally and otherwise. There's a dirtiness and nakedness to the sound that is new (although I don't know Scar or Civilians). I like it. But it will take some time to get that sound into my ear.

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I made the pilgrimage to West Hollywood this week to see Joe and the boys play the full album in its entirety, at the Largo release-day concert. It was, as you might imagine, a pretty revelatory night. I'd never seen Joe perform before, and he is a vastly charismatic and charming performer-- and surprisingly energetic, to boot. They did the album all the way through, with the same band he recorded it with, including Patrick Warren on the final number but minus Lisa Hannigan and Marc Ribot, the latter of whom saw his seat filled by Kennth Pettingale (from the band The Milk Carton Kids). The arrangements did not differ from on the album, but the performances were all wonderfully rambunctious, particularly Jay's drum freakout in "Sticks and Stones." The highlight(*), for me, was "After the War"-- partly because it's just my favorite on the album, but partly because Joe delivered an impassioned, extended "Old Man River" coda at the end of it. For the encore: A Woody Guthrie song. What else?

(*) Well, actually, I guess the highlight was finally getting to shake hands and directly express my gratitude to my greatest musical hero, and then to have a wonderful chat with Jay.

All to say: A supremely memorable show, and one that made me love Reverie all the more. Joe's commentary on the songs was itself worth the price of admission.

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So Joe Henry's off to England to play a show with pianist Brad Mehldau and work at Peter Gabriel's Real World studio. Oh, what I wouldn't give to witness that meeting of the minds and souls.

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The new issue of Image is now available. You can get a sneak preview of Linford Detweiler's in-depth interview with Joe Henry here.

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