Joe Henry: Release-Day Round-Up
A few of my readers have already asked me: Is Blood from Stars the best Joe Henry album yet?
My short answer is yes, it probably is, at least insofar as it’s his most fully-realized and integrated musical vision, the album that finds him at the peak of his powers as a producer, a singer, a songwriter, and an arranger. It is, in other words, the record that best combines everything that’s great about Joe Henry, the quintessential Joe Henry release– to the extent that you could ever pare down his canon to a single album.
That does not mean that it’s my favorite Joe Henry album. For me, Tiny Voices will probably always be the one that means the most to me, for mostly subjective and personal reasons. But I’m comfortable calling it the best album I’ve heard this year by a longshot– and in fact, the best album I’ve heard in five or six years.
I’m glad to see that I’m not alone. My friend Andy Whitman wrote a spectacularly great review for Paste:
When we last heard from Henry on 2007’s Civilians, he was warily surveying the eroding legacy of America, a big, blustering nation that seemed to have lost its way. But the weighty themes were wedded to some of the starkest, most minimal music of his career, as if he didn’t want the lyrical urgency to be drowned out by the sonic whirlwind. In contrast, Blood From Stars shows off Henry’s most personal, intimate songwriting, but this time out he’s backed by a hyperactive band and a full horn section, by turns soothing and cacophonous.
Henry is working deep within the blues tradition on these songs, but these are blues that have been more informed by Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes than by Robert Johnson or Son House. Henry hangs his tunes on the blues framework, but the sounds and words are more reminiscent of the Cotton Club and the Harlem Renaissance. “The Man I Keep Hid,” the opening track, is typical, with its sonic hints of Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” and its poetic, confessional tropes. “Somebody used my mouth and laughed out loud,” he marvels midway through, and it’s a wondrous, telling line that will speak to anyone who has ever experienced the shock that greets the wounding remark that seems to emerge, unbidden, from the murky, subterranean depths of the human soul. It’s one of many lyrical delights on the album.
I’m tempted to call it a stone cold masterpiece, but there’s nothing cold about it. It’s a big, open-hearted, warm paean to the hazards and triumphs of love, human and divine. There’s no use separating the two, Joe Henry seems to be telling us. The human is illumined by the flickering light of something better and outside ourselves, and the divine is given substance and form by messy, redemptive relationships. It’s the truest album I’ve heard this year, and the best.
Andrew Gilstrap is impressed, as well.
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.
Steven Wine celebrates Henry’s craft.
Henry’s a marvelous writer of song.. and Blood rivals his best work. It laments a world where “the stars have gone astray,””true revelation is a thug” and “reason is traded for rhyme.”
Such sentiments are attached to music that mitigates the gloom, the way the blues can. Henry borrows from that genre, and jazz as well. A Grammy-winning producer, he throws in clangs, crashes, squeals and other spasms of odd noise.
The quirky rhythm of the record is crucial, too. Songs punch and jab and run together. Drums thunder. Henry breathes in the middle of vocal phrases. The result is exhilarating.
Andy Gill says the album is “a fascinating, sometimes harrowing journey to a dark and surprisingly foreign place, which, after years of cosy familiarity, somehow manages to make the blues seem strange again.” Furthermore:
For his own 12th album, Henry has turned his attention to the blues, but managed to avoid most of the common clichés which hang around the genre like cheap perfume. There’s nothing here about Chicago, or the Mississippi delta, or packing your leaving trunk and going off to sell your soul to the devil down at the crossroads. Instead, that sense of discomfiture with one’s lot is expressed in images which, though newly minted, are of the kind that flourished in old folk and blues songs. “I’m going to dig my well from the bottom to the top,” he sings in “Bellwether”, “I’m going to change my name until it rings a bell” – both brilliantly evoking the acute disconnection with the way things are.
Likewise, there’s no trace either of the standard 12-bar format. Instead, the album opens with a haunting piano prelude, after which Henry simply presents his musicians with the material and lets them arrive at the songs’ natural forms. And since his musicians include the likes of master guitarist Marc Ribot, legendary session bassist David Piltch and Jay Bellerose, perhaps the most inventively expressive drummer working today, those forms are both instinctive and ingenious. “Channel” seems to solidify from a cloud of instrumental hints, in the manner of a Daniel Lanois production, while Bellerose alone brings “Death to the Storm” alive through terrifying, earth-shaking drum rolls like rolling thunder.
I’ll round up any other noteworthy reviews that trickle in this week.