Tracking “Blood from Stars”
I’ll be honest: I really have no idea what Blood from Stars means. I’m not even sure how it works semantically– how does blood come from stars?– much less how it fits as the title of Joe Henry‘s eleventh album. There is a song called “Stars,” but it makes no mention of blood. I’m stumped.
It’s one of a good many things I can’t tell you about the record, and may never truly figure it out. But then, I rid myself long ago of the idea that Joe Henry’s music is best enjoyed by trying to figure it all out. Henry, of course, is my favorite singer-songwriter of all, a secret I’ve not kept very well, and a fact about which I make no claim to unbiased decision-making. He’s the brightest constellation in my musical galaxy, and his album Tiny Voices is a landmark in my life, an album that’s so thoroughly colored my tastes and my perspective– and not just about music– that I’ve long forgotten whether I first loved it because of how similar its sensibility is to my own, or if years of listening have caused the album to reshape my thinking in its own mold. At any rate, what I love most about the album is the way that it seems to recreate itself every time you play it. It maintains a certain magic, cloaks itself in a certain sense of mystery, that makes it fairly difficult, and probably unrewarding, to try to explain what it is or what it’s about in just a few short sentences.
In other words: Joe Henry doesn’t make albums to figure out, but albums to live with. And I haven’t lived with Blood for Stars very long– not enough to make any grand pronouncements about it, anyway. But I’ve lived with it long enough for it to make itself known as a rich and rewarding piece of work, and to become rather excited to share the experience with you all. So here’s a Hurst Review first– a track-by-track preview of an album that comes out on August 18th. Enough, I hope, to raise some eyebrows, whet some whistles, and pique some curiosities without spoiling too many of the album’s surprises.
The record begins with a first for Henry– an instrumental overture called “Light No Lamp When the Sun Goes Low,” played by jazz pianist Jason Moran. It’s a spare, melancholy tune with an elliptical melody, and you might not piece it together until the song resurfaces later on the record…
The first proper song, “The Man That I Keep Hid,” enters with the low murmur of sampled dialogue, via keys player Keefus Ciancia, before Jay Bellerose enters with steadily thumping percussion. Marc Ribot, renowned guitar master, sets aside the axe and plays a blustering coronet, and the whole song swings along like a cabaret blues before erupting, mid-song, into what might be the most raucous track Henry’s ever recorded. It’s explosive and totally unhinged– a far cry from the mannered folk of Civilians— and its controlled chaos makes it clear that Henry is back in Tiny Voices mode again.
And, as is his custom, he follows the explosive opener with the record’s slowest, steadiest track, “Channel.” Every Joe Henry album has one ballad that I initially have a hard time finding myself in, and this is the one for this record, but its slow-burning elegance has won me over in a big way. It’s a classic Henry ballad in the vein of “Civil War” or “Flag,” but the musicians bring to it a light, improvisational touch and a sense of dissonance that mimics the sense of “disarray” Henry sings about.
Ever sly and subversive, Henry seems interested in opening this album with a series of red herrings and left-turns; he follows “Channel” with “This is My Favorite Cage,” a spare ballad performed acoustically, mostly limited to Marc Ribot’s Spanish guitar picking, which lends the track a certain flamenco flair. Toward the end, Ciancia re-enters with a wash of sampled orchestral strings, bringing the song back to the seedy club in which it began, though the overall effect– its haunted tone and wide-open arrangement– recalls the Scar track “Lock and Key.” As a lyricist, Henry continues to distinguish himself with a keen understanding of form, structure, and the sound of words; this is a carefully architectural piece, essentially a poem set to music.
Henry summons the full band again– as well as the blues motif– for “Death to the Storm,” a weird sing-along that’s pitched somewhere between blues anthem, bizarro house party, and gospel rave-up via Tom Waits. Indeed, Ribot lays down the same kind of growling, cantankerous riffs he’s brought to albums like Rain Dogs and Real Done, but the song is made by vocalist Marc Anthony Thompson, whose mighty bass gives the chorus its swirling undertow. The lyrics are elusive and elliptical, a series of disjointed scenes and riddles that perversely beckons us to sing along.
Ribot’s growling blues licks provide the framework for “All Blues Hail Mary,” while rumbling percussion and bass, along with more weird cinematic samples from Ciancia, make it feel like an epic. It’s a quiet storm with Henry at its center, crooning one of his best-ever lyrics– but I don’t want to go too far down that road, at least not yet.
The twilit atmospherics bleed into “Bellwether,” which begins as another simple blues slow-burner, but then, at the end of the second verse, Henry suddenly boosts the volume in his own voice, apparently signaling Bellerose, who starts banging the hell out of some massive drum and sounding for all the world like hes conjuring thunder, just as Ribot picks up the coronet again and the song flat-out explodes into storming anarchy.
Henry has always been a singer and songwriter with a romantic bent, and his recent albums have all included at least one moment of unabashed whimsy and soft-shoe crooning– songs like “I Will Write My Book,” “Lighthouse,” and “Cold Enough to Cross.” That spirit informs much of Blood from Stars, but it’s never more evident than on “Progress of Love,” a tipsy tune that summons the punchdrunk ramble of “Loves You Madly” but channels it through the wistful melody of “I Will Write My Book.” It’s colored by saxophone (via Henry’s son Levon, whose horns are integral to the album’s sound and spirit) and acoustic guitar, while its lyric is a perfect mix of Henry’s cheerful humor, dark wit, and purposeful blurring of the personal, the political, and the spiritual. The third verse makes winking reference to the political bent of Civilians, and its cheeky humor reminds me a bit of prime Randy Newman, of all people.
Young Levon then gets a chance to shine on “Over Her Shoulder,” a brief, romantic, palette-cleansing instrumental that the elder Henry wrote as a showcase for his son. He duets with decades-old string arrangements, again summoned by Ciancia.
That song gradually morphs into “Suit on a Frame,” another bluesy rocker that is the album’s most epic track, weighing in at a solid six-and-a-half minutes. Like Tiny Voices and unlike Civilians, Henry gives his full band a chance to shine, and each one of them is afforded an opportunity to speak in their own wildly articulate voices here. It’s about this point when you realize how integral Jay Bellerose’s drumming is to the character of this album; no other percussionist is as influential to the sound of the albums he plays on as Bellerose, whose drums are almost as strong a voice on this album as Henry’s is, shaking and rattling and rolling all over the place. I am increasingly convinced that the man has six arms.
“Truce” is a slow, shuffling ballad, ignited halfway through by a blistering electric guitar solo from Ribot. Henry sings with sadness in his voice, a deep gravitas that puts him on roughly the same aesthetic terrain as Tom Waits or perhaps Leonard Cohen.
And then there’s “Stars,” an explosive finale in the vein of “Your Side of My World.” Indeed, though the melody is (oddly enough) borrowed from Dolly Parton’s “Down from Dover,” the song has anarchy at its heart, Bellerose’s drums and Levon’s sax erupting into something that’s either violent or celebratory, depending on how you hear it.
But it isn’t quite the end: “Light No Lamp…” reappears here, this time with Henry singing the lyric and several of the band members providing a slow, rumbling backdrop. As on Civilians, Henry ties together all the album’s lyrical themes in the final song, bringing together many different strands and weaving them into a masterful conclusion. Fittingly, it’s the album’s most straightforward lyric– in fact, its rhythmic simplicity and benedictory wording make it feel like an old spiritual, or even a children’s song.
You will note, by now, that I am not reviewing this album, but merely describing it, offering a few surface-deep comments about its feel, its sound, and its character. It is a recording of immense depth– both sonic and otherwise– and, in a great many respects, a new highpoint for Henry, who absorbs all the lessons learned from Scar, Tiny Voices, and Civilians, yet also makes an album that is– probably intentionally– the polar opposite of his last one, not in a way that diminishes the effect of that masterful work, but rather complements it, as if the two albums showcase two distinct sides of his musical nature.
In short, it’s an album I expect I’ll be living with– gratefully, if not always comfortably– for the forseeable future.