Joe Henry: “Reverie”

A Joe Henry album, I have come to believe, is more than a little like a case in HBO’s The Wire; as Detective Freamon might remind us, “All the pieces matter.” The new one has fourteen pieces, and I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that any one of them is more or less important than all the others. Each seems to present the maps and legends needed to explore the surrounding territories. But a song that has been revealing itself, little by little, as a particularly well-hidden gateway to Reverie’s secrets is “Grand Street.” The song recalls, perhaps deliberately, another of Henry’s songs, “This Afternoon,” from the Tiny Voices album. Both songs are masterpieces of suspense; ominous details pile up and suggest a story that never arrives, as if Henry is suggesting that the build-up is more important than the event itself. In “Grand Street,” there is maybe even less of a narrative than in “This Afternoon.” Our narrator stands atop a stair. He scratches his leg, has a smoke, takes in the scene. There’s a butcher, and a woman with a scarf in her hair, but really, nothing much happens. The song itself is a holy act of waiting. It is a moment and nothing more.

That makes it, I reckon, a song only Joe Henry would write, perhaps even a song only Joe Henry could write. It also makes for an evocative portrait of Reverie in miniature. If the album was a movie, this song could be the trailer. “Grand Street” surveys time not as a philosophical construct or as a tool of measurement, but as a physical entity, a force that gives the song a structure and a context.

The album both is and isn’t about time. Joe Henry has as much as said that time is its central conceit—something that is not, he bids us remember, related to the fact that he turned 50 while writing these songs—but to suggest that the man sat down and whittled away at fourteen songs that muse, in abstract terms, on time as a concept would be like saying that Henry’s Civilians was engineered to be a dozen songs “about” God and politics. On that album, the twin forces of the nation and the divine shaped and propelled the action, but were not its central players. The characters in those songs did not sit and talk about God and country, and neither do the characters in these songs offer conjecture about the invisible hand of time. Time is like Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit, in a sense; it propels the action and sets the tone while remaining largely unseen. And when it makes a real appearance—say, on “Room at Arles,” a song for the late Vic Chesnutt—it’s fairly dramatic, though not in the way you might think.

There is another sense in which Reverie is an entirely different record than Civilians. Both Civilians and Blood from Stars were, to some degree, meditations on Mystery. Reverie doesn’t consider mystery so much as it embodies it, much as Tiny Voices did. To put it another way, I think you can listen to Civilians from the first song to the last and assume a consistent narrator, or at least a reliable authorial voice. And Blood from Stars, with its prelude and prologue, had a deliberate structure to it. Reverie is more of an abstraction, more a set of thematically-linked short stories than a Great American Novel, a set of fragments that suggest a shape you can almost see, even if you can never quite arrange the pieces in a way that makes that shape fully evident. And again I tell you: All the pieces matter. (By the way, I don’t for a moment believe Henry didn’t intend for this thing to have a funny shape and a slanted vision; he cites Picasso as an inspiration for this album, for goodness sake.)

And about that funny shape… let me return, if I may, to “Grand Street,” a song that serves as both summary and sleight of hand, a bit of misdirection that threw me off for a good several weeks of listening before the bigger picture began to enter my view. Reverie is two albums in one; as has already been said rather emphatically, this is very much the closest thing we have to a Joe Henry rock and roll album, a set of strangely bumping and thrashing basement tapes that have a greater sense of improvisation to them, a more visceral impact, than anything he’s done. “Grand Street” builds, with live-in-the-studio immediacy, into a tempestuous middle section that did not, as far as I know, cause structural damage to the basement in which it was recorded, but sounds like it could quite easily have knocked some things loose. It, along with “Sticks and Stones” and “Strung” and the lead single-ish “Odetta,” set up the album as a rowdy and rambunctious affair, which it frequently is, but it is not Joe Henry’s rock album or his Basement Tapes any more than Blood was his blues album or Scar his jazz one.

Instead: It’s a slippery and elusive and impressionistic thing with many pieces—and all the pieces matter! It is an rich assortment of riddles, scenes left slightly askew. The first half of the album is where all those basement tape whispers come out: It’s where you’ll find all the songs mentioned above, all the strange bumps and rattles of Henry’s volatile basement combo. It’s got rock, blues, country, tango, and a gangbusters Money Jungle opener where small-band chemistry conveys music with real physicality. The songs—“Grand Street” being one of them—are like little movie scenes snatched from the reels and refashioned into a new film; they don’t have the same stories or the same characters, but in an undeniable way they were clearly made to go together.

After “Strung,” a tango that tips its fedora to Tom Waits in full-on circus carny mode, the ground shifts and the record starts to take on a different kind of character; what follows are four ballads, the songs less like movie scenes than stand-alone poems, the structures clearer but no less mysterious. These songs are sparer, too, but no less physical—the small-ensemble intimacy makes them ballads you can feel on your skin.

The end of the album is the most surprising of all, at least for those of us who have been listening to Joe Henry albums for a while now. The final three songs are, for want of a better cliché, pop songs. And love songs—because how else would one end an album that frequently pokes its finger into the eye of time, but never once takes its ravages to be anything but inevitable?

My grouping of the songs according to what their forms seem to dictate betrays a loose and imperfect method of classification, if only because the third and possibly best song on the album, “After the War,” could fit quite easily into any of the three sections. As a sort of pre-war ballad—pop the way Bing Crosby did it—it makes for a vivid entry in the first half of the album’s stylistic shuffle; of course, it is also both a ballad and, arguably, a love song, even if its sentiment is one borne of regret.

“After the War” also illustrates the way Reverie tends to allow its mysteries to abide without need of classification. It is a song that surveys time, yes—calls it by name, even—but the crux of the song is really in that word after. The song isn’t about time in the abstract so much as time as a physically imposing presence, a fence between a then and a now. It’s also about the narrator’s pining for what lies on the other side of that fence. That tension is, basically, the story and substance of the song, and indeed, of the entire record; “Odetta” works in a similar way, only this time the narrator wants to be carried ahead instead of allowed to walk back.

Of the ballads section of the album (and once again I am cheating a bit; “Deathbed Version” might be too slinky and cantankerous to fit the bill), the most pivotal number might be “Tomorrow is October,” a song with a declarative sentence as its title and as the full force of its revelation: The narrator, in the verses, struggles to find his footing as the ground beneath him ever moved, but then the chorus hits with the full gravity of something inevitable. The songs in this section have better manners, and seem to come from a more refined and sophisticated stock, than the ones that came prior—“Deathbed Version” is a variation on an e.e. cummings conceit, and “Room at Arles” takes its name from a painting—but their truths may in fact be all the more savage because of it. Certainly, “Deathbed Version,” where the present moment collides with mortality, is the most sinister-sounding thing Henry has ever put on an album.

As for the finale: Who knew Joe Henry wrote songs like this? “Unspeakable” is a lover’s hymn that uses song itself as its central metaphor of love’s power when it is something active, not merely assumed; in so doing it hearkens back to “Strung,” which likens the action of love to the action of creating, and to “Room at Arles,” which measures life in terms of song. Time’s savagery is not denied, but rather it is accepted, which seems to be the overriding idea of the closing song, “The World and All I Know.” Lofty title aside, this is a very different sort of album closer for Joe Henry; it’s not an epic like “Your Side of My World,” nor does it tie the record’s themes together as neatly as “God Only Knows” or “Light No Lamp” did, but rather it serves as a sort of final thought, a last scene, a closing perspective that plays off everything that came before it and suggests the notion of surrender as a sort of antidote to the more menacing sense of inevitability in, say, “Tomorrow is October” or “Deathbed Version”—and for that matter, an answer to the narrator’s anxieties in “After the War.” And all that in a concise three minutes; I told you it was a pop song!

But it’s not a pat answer so much as a tranquil distillation of a motif that surfaces throughout the album, more violently and with greater urgency. That’s the motif of the search, an active and sometimes fumbling but no less determined quest for meaning in the here and now—intimacy in the face of death’s cruelty, love and faithfulness even when tomorrow and forever are empty promises. In “The World and All I Know,” that kind of surrender to time’s undertow suggests that impermanence need not mean meaninglessness. Its contrast is in the album opener, “Heaven’s Escape,” an expression of innate dissatisfaction and restlessness even in paradise—of a human heart that cannot be satisfied so long as time keeps marching forward. And then there is “Eyes Out for You,” where the singer searches for an unnamed lover, through eyes “each blue and black.”

What Henry has done here, it should be said, is a rather remarkable achievement; he’s taken time’s passage as a sort of unifying force that can, and does, smuggle in necessary themes of personal stock-taking without ever being a confessional album—or, God forbid, an autobiographical one. They are songs about love as a verb and time as an immovable force, and thus they are songs about living in the balance. “Sticks and Stones” might be the most obvious example—though it ends with a frozen-in-time scene not unlike “Grand Street,” its chorus is concerned with new leaves, presumably the kinds one might turn over, only here they have all run out. “Dark Tears,” meanwhile, calls for an acknowledgement of how urgent all this really is; “some take love for granted, like they’ll never be alone” goes its most emphatic verse, which comes, I should note, right before a verse about remembering the dead.

Reverie is an elliptical record, built on the frayed connections between Henry’s sketchiest songs to date—which is not in any way a bad thing. There is nothing here that takes the role of the magnificent centerpiece, as “Our Song” did on Civilians, building from hypnotic narrative into a chorus that connects the dots and lifts the curtain on the song’s implicit revelations; nor is there anything that leans in the direction of historic iconography as an easy signpost, no narration from Richard Pryor or Charlie Parker. (Those attentive to the liner notes will witness a fleeting glimpse of Henry Fonda’s likeness, however.) These songs are cut closer to the bone. They entice rather than explain. They conjure mystery and permit us to savor its presence.

What this isn’t is a willfully difficult record. This is one of the true pleasures of any Joe Henry album, and one of his greatest gifts as a record-maker: His work always welcomes us to spend time with it, then amply rewards us for doing so. Reverie wears its fraying edges with warmth, its delights palpable. A song like “Tomorrow is October” is well within Henry’s wheelhouse, and he does ballads like this one so assuredly that it’s easy to take for granted the fact that he does them expertly. “Room at Arles,” meanwhile, is noteworthy for being the first recording featuring just Joe and his guitar; though simple in execution, it’s as scruffy and disheveled as anything here. Meanwhile, “Dark Tears” is all circular rhythms, almost a drone; it’s a new color in Henry’s palette, as is “Heaven’s Escape,” a ramshackle number that harnesses the loose electricity of small-combo jazz recordings more evocatively than anything he’s recorded before. Most surprising of all is the wild abandon of the drum solo that comes in the middle of “Sticks and Stones.” Joe Henry albums never feel fussed over, but here he’s ruffling his hair more than ever, and it allows Reverie to be the unkempt, roguish charmer in the Joe Henry catalog.

It might go without saying, I suppose, that basement racket turns out to be the perfect mode of expression for this particular set of songs. Henry and his band wrestle with something wild and wooly here, and they impose some order on it without quite taming or subduing it, and they don’t create beauty from the savagery so much as point to the beauty that’s already there. Reverie is an album that teaches you how to listen to it, and that’s how I’m hearing it now: As a series of moments in time that whisper of big pictures and unspeakable revelations.

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