Joe Henry: “Blood from Stars”
“I want my story straight,” insists Joe Henry, though “all the others bend.” Honestly, I’m not sure if I believe him. Henry doesn’t tell straight stories; he spins tall tales that are loopy and elliptical. Which is not to say that he doesn’t tell the truth, mind you. He just tells it slant.
Henry’s last story was called Civilians. That album actually seemed, at first, to be fairly straight, but leisurely revealed itself to be a devilish complex of smoke and mirrors, an elaborately interwoven system of metaphors in which romance stood for politics, and politics for the human condition. The elegant, folksy exterior was deceptive; for all its clean lines, the web it wove was a tangled one.
Blood from Stars is the name of the new one, and it’s possible that the story itself is a little straighter this time. But the telling? If the last one was a masterfully-staged parlor trick, this one is pure black magic. There’s nothing straight about it: It begins and ends with a spiritual number called “Light No Lamp When the Sun Comes Down,” and in between it snakes through primitive blues, flamenco sketches, jazz freak-outs, and an instrumental spot for Joe’s son Levon, whose saxophone is but one of the elemental forces that hammers out the album’s shape.
Another is Marc Ribot’s guitar, growling and wailing with all the cantankerous mayhem he’s brought to so many classic Tom Waits recordings; there’s no one else like him. He also wails away on a coronet here and there, though it sounds more like the instrument’s playing him than the other way around. Actually, that’s a pretty good picture of Blood from Stars as a whole: Henry shatters his reputation as a well-mannered singer/songwriter, for this set is urgent and howling and completely unkempt. Henry avoids sounding as though he’s directing the mayhem, instead giving it the feel of something arranged by the universe itself, or by some strange supernatural force that acts only when this particular group of musicians gets together in a room.
Conversely, it’s also, of all Henry’s albums, the one that’s most closely tied to form. Henry credits poets like Langston Hughes and e.e. cummings—and we might mention colleagues like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Allen Toussaint, as well— for moving him to use classic blues structures as a catalyst for some of his most (paradoxically) explosive and combustible lyricism. The songs are architectural wonders, carefully balanced and composed with exacting precision, but even that doesn’t restrain their volatile spirit: This is the most wild and wooly music Henry has been involved with since his own Tiny Voices, a strange and mysterious thing that thumps and rattles through the dark.
There are surprises along the way. For one, Henry treads across Tiny Voices territory once again on “Stars,” the band’s barely-controlled cacophony recalling the inspired chaos of that 2003 landmark. On “Progress of Love,” Henry proves he can be a better Randy Newman than Randy Newman ever could be. And his longtime drummer Jay Bellerose bangs the hell out of something on “Bellwether” that—I swear—summons thunder. Also, I believe the man has six arms.
But that’s just the storytelling—what of the actual story? In ten words or less: It’s another album about God, love, and politics. Just not in the same way as Civilians. The Almighty is not mentioned by name in nearly every song, as He was on Civilians, yet we sense something of that Mystery permeating this record, we hear it rattling around in the dark. Actually, that’s one of the album’s themes: Henry bids us “light no lamp when the sun comes down,” for only under the cloak of darkness do we see—really see—love and grace.
Perhaps that’s a better synopsis: Blood from Stars is about grace through trouble. Henry once sang that “trouble comes to those who need it most,” and he echoes that sentiment here when he says that “trouble is so underrated.” Blood from Stars is about the best kind of trouble: In “Truce,” “true revelation” is personified as a sinister thug, and if we don’t see things his way—well, watch out for your thumbs. There’s something of that in “This is My Favorite Cage,” as well, when some dark, awful angel swoops in to wrestle the singer’s faith down out of the rafters and bend his will “back up on its knees.”
The blues are mentioned by their name on several songs here—the characters in Henry’s songs speak in a “weary blues” here and a “talking blues” there—but Blood from Stars does more than any other Henry album to discredit the muddled notion that he’s a brooding or sinister songwriter. Henry has always been, and is here again, a romantic, and not just because of his enduring old-timey-crooner fancies. (Disembodied flourishes of big band jazz and orchestral music waft through the record like Sinatra’s ghost.) Henry seems to believe with all his heart in the power of love, not to erase or dull the pain of earthly life, but to redeem it. That’s because love in itself is not the end, but a whisper of some future mystery revealed: “Love is light, not glory/ A story, not a crown.”
So, too, is it strange currency in an otherwise bankrupt economy; even in an age so coarse as say “never forget” when it means “never forgive,” Henry wryly notes that “love still goes for a song.” Those lines come from “Progress of Love,” the album’s center, the song that bears passing resemblance to a more poetic Randy Newman, and the clearest indication that the politics of Civilians haven’t been completely pushed aside. But there is humor as well: Blood from Stars is more comedy than tragedy, albeit dark and crooked. The big climax comes in “Stars,” when Henry elevates romantic distress into galactic cataclysm. It’s either a song about a marriage breaking down, or the impending Apocalypse.
After that song, tranquility returns in the guise of “Light No Lamp When the Sun Comes Down,” a sparse, churchy spiritual. (And indeed, where else but in the church house would one end a journey so steeped in the blues?) Its tone initially seems didactic, as Henry sings what seem like little proverbs—but even here, of course, the story isn’t quite straight. They aren’t truisms so much as mysterious incantations, lessons carried over from beyond the curtain of darkness: The singer actually tells us as much, beckoning us to submit our hearts to the dark and awful work of God’s humbling grace. That love redeems the darkness and mercy brings forth light is not, in human terms, a clear or clean-cut truth, but it is true nonetheless. And of that truth, Blood from Stars testifies, its elegant whispers speaking of heavenly things even above the din of the blues.