Singer-songwriter Joe Henry — the literate purveyor of a kind of country-tinged, folk-imbued, smokily jazzified, contemporary “adult music” that in a far better world would be slapped heartily on the back and reside comfortably at the top of the pop charts — has been making solo albums since the mid-’80s or thereabouts. But you might know Henry better by his funkily imaginative production jobs for the likes of Aimee Mann, Elvis Costello, Bettye LaVette and Mary Gauthier, not to mention that ace 2003 Grammy Award–winning Solomon Burke disc, Don’t Give Up on Me. Henry also composed and produced the soundtrack to the Judd Apatow comedy Knocked Up, in collaboration with his hero, Loudon Wainwright III.
Henry has a new solo disc out on Anti- called Civilians. His first in four years, it’s an often extraordinarily poignant set of ruminations on the shaky state of our state and the enduring value of true love in times of trouble. The album’s mostly somber themes are given rich and satisfying fields of play with the aid of guests including guitarist Bill Frisell and pianist-synergist Van Dyke Parks.
On Civilians, Henry weaves the personal and the political with such deft and dark-witted lyrical prowess that the painterly arrangement and mix of the music might go unnoticed. Yet that sound is an integral part of the album’s thematic thrust. It’s a warm, thick, usually close sound, with spare acoustic bass and brushed drums, rolling piano chords and crystalline guitars. And when Henry sings, he whines high and trilly like Dave Edmunds, through old ribbon mikes and just a touch of slap back. It’s a semicontemporary sound, coming off like a layering of times and places, people and things.
This supremely crafted music is made for listening to, no doubt about it. And to do that kind of thing right, a musician needs to take his time. For Henry, that was crucial. He finds, too, that his diverse experiences as a producer invariably add a lot to his palette when it comes time to record his own material.
“I’ve been very surprised to find out that in producing other projects, the satisfaction is not really any different from making my own records,” he says. “I wouldn’t have imagined such a thing before I was doing a lot of producing. I would have been agonizing to find myself putting my own ‘artistic vision’ on hold. But everything I do that facilitates something meaningful coming out of a pair of speakers is really gratifying.”
With the exception of one track, Civilians took just three days last January to record in Henry’s basement studio in South Pasadena. By the time he was ready to record, the pervasive lyrical themes and emotional angles had surfaced and made themselves clear to Henry. That the album feels in sum so solidly conceived, and weighty, like an epic Western, is probably due to the organic way Henry allowed those themes to emerge, and the subject matter that lay just beneath the surface of his consciousness when he originally sketched out their design. His approach to composing and arranging songs, then sequencing them in a meaningful way, is a lesson plan in the modern art of composition.
“I’m always writing, and songs kind of go on a pile,” he says, “and at a certain point, songs start grouping together and implying a body. When I see that happening, it’s intriguing to me, then I kind of take direction from that, and start writing accordingly. Then a couple of songs that seem significant to the business at hand appear, and they shed a new light on what you already have. You just start sculpting it, and it starts to take its own shape. It’s like writing a book, or making a movie: It’s easy to see which scenes are lacking, and where the story needs to be fleshed out.”
Hearkening back to the stately marches and gentle waltzes of very old American musical forms, “Civil War” was the first song Henry wrote for Civilians. Its subject matter, rustic rhythmic cadence and panoramic instrumental cascade served as both lyrical and sonic stencil for many of the songs that followed, which Henry characterizes as “emotionally political and religiously emotional.”
“By the time I recorded it,” he says, “I understood that it was distinctly a template. I didn’t make a decision to write in an oblique poetic way about politics, but when I saw that that was happening and surfacing in the writing, I did make the decision to let it happen.”
On Civilians, the emotional and sensual effect of Henry’s careful juggling of time and place — what we commonly refer to as atmosphere — is at times so strong as to make you feel a bit woozy. It’s an album whose almost opulently burnished resonance invites one in as if to submerge. Befitting its ostensible theme of how hard it can be to justify one’s patriotism — but how pretty damn hard it is to let it go too — Henry likes to single out the kind of Americans with whom he feels proud to align himself, and uses their stories to dig a bit deeper than the merely political.
With reference to the legend of the madly obsessive Charlie Parker, the gentle shamble and surprising chords of “Parker’s Mood” bring home, says Henry, “the idea that sometimes some thing that obsesses you, energizes and compels you, can also be the thing that destroys you.”
The album’s centerpiece is “Our Song,” in which Henry imagines seeing Willie Mays in a Home Depot in Arizona, shopping with his wife and puzzling out what’s become of his semibeloved USA: “This was my country,” says Willie Mays, and “it’s my right if the worst of it may still make me a better man.”
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Up to and including a brief respite for a jaunt through the Hoagy Carmichael–ish “I Will Write My Book,” Civilians is built to best experience it as one would a really good movie, where you’d buy your popcorn, settle into your seat and declare yourself in for the duration. That’s the ideal scenario, anyway; taken separately, the songs are also remarkably self-contained and durable.
However, says Henry, “Civilians contains a bigger story, far beyond the individual stories it contains.”
It will be released on September 11.
JOE HENRY | Civilians | Anti-