First Impressions: Joe Henry’s “Reverie”
(Ed. Note: The following notes were composed after spending just few days with this fine record, and while I still believe every word of this original post, I also want to note that a more thorough and thoughtful review of the album is available here.)
It’s pretty well-established, I think, that Joe Henry records his albums from a studio in his own basement—not just the ones released under his own name, but even many of the records he produces for other musicians. This, combined with the reverence he surely has for Bob Dylan, makes it just a might baffling that it’s taken this long for him to record his very own set of Basement Tapes, or at least something closely akin to it. But the day has come at last: Reverie is an album that begs the comparison (or at least the pun) more than any other set of songs Henry has yet waxed.
Or so my first impressions of the record lead me to believe. I’ve been living with a handful of the songs for a couple months now; most of them, just over a week. Conversely, I’ve had, say, Tiny Voices for close to eight years now, and it still changes the weather in my house and in my mind, in strange and never-the-same ways, every time I play it. Civilians— which is just shy of reaching the tender age of five—is an album that has grown in richness in stature like few others I can think of, and seems to be a constantly re-aligning presence in my life, even after I’ve logged so many countless listens. So when I say that these few paragraphs you’re reading contain my first impressions of Reverie, I mean it by way of defense, explanation, and apology: There is really nothing I can say just yet about this piece of work—yes, as elusive and rich in mystery as the last few Joe Henry albums—that isn’t subject to change. (In a month or so I’ll post a proper review, which will itself be tragically underinformed.)
So. Reverie. Given how much I write about Joe Henry, I expect that some will come here wanting a quick proclamation of this as his “best” album, or at least as my favorite. I couldn’t possibly stack his last four albums on their heads and compare them, though—the run of Tiny Voices through Reverie has been basically flawless—and as for favorites, Tiny Voices has an eight-year lead on this one, though I suppose nothing is impossible.
But I will say that it is indeed the loosest, rawest thing Henry has yet recorded. (A friend recently told me that he assumed the song “Odetta” to be a live concert recording, so frayed are its edges; this is a good indicator of the energy on the album as a whole.) Its spontaneous mayhem is not unprecedented in Henry’s canon; Tiny Voices may not have been cut in a basement but it is full of odd bumps and rattles and seems to lurch about with its own kind of energy, which is true of Reverie as well. But since it is lacking in horns and is entirely acoustic, it also reminds me a little of Civilians, but perhaps only on superficial levels.
The absence of horns is a bit ironic, actually, given that the interplay between bass, drums, and piano on some of these songs (especially the first, “Heaven’s Escape”) makes me think this is the jazziest thing in the Henry canon. That said, there’s a blues number here called “Sticks and Stones”—which moves to its own kind of loose swagger—and an altogether howling, pounding song called “Strung” that make me think this is essentially a Joe Henry rock and roll record.
And yet, for all the mayhem—and I’m not just taking about those songs but also the dust-kicking in “Odetta” and even the ominous dance of “Deathbed Version”—there is also a purity of poetry here that is uncommon even for a Joe Henry album; you hear it most on the slower numbers, like “Tomorrow is October,” a sad but kind of stoic paean to the ravages of time, and in his Vic Chesnutt tribute, “Room at Arles.” You could look at the lyrics of these songs on paper and have no way of knowing they are intended for music, so well do they work as stand-alone poetry. I am also quite taken with “Piano Furnace,” a more cordial ballad that could pass for an Over the Rhine song, actually, which makes it unsurprising to see that it was based on the writings of Linford Detweiler. There is also the twinkling, twilit Americana in “After the War,” and “Grand Street,” a sort of pile-up of little moments and scenes that recalls the construction of “This Afternoon,” in a way.
Another corker, then, or so it seems to me right now. Given that the album is concerned, primarily, with matters of time, I suppose I should let the thing age a bit before I make any further comment. I’m sure a month or so will be plenty of time, right?