Here’s a long piece I wrote in late 2019 for NR MINT, a website (a blog, really) on which I sporadically posted my own music criticism for a few years. Perhaps foolishly, I didn’t renew the Squarespace fee and let the site disappear. Anyway, a few folks have asked to read pieces from the site since its demise, so I’ll start by posting this one. I had made a few edits to the piece directly on the site, so this might represent a somewhat earlier draft than the last one that could be read. But I just quickly buzzed through it, and it seemed pretty close to what I settled on.
On Joe Henry
Joe Henry has pursued his career in a series of imbricated phases—a country-rock period overlapping an R&B flirtation, a blues phase bleeding into mysticism—but he has lifelong tendencies that balance continuity and change, and one of these is an affinity, rare among living songwriters, for ballads in three-four time. “I Was a Playboy,” from his 1996 album, Trampoline, is an acoustic reflection enlarged by Raul Ferrando’s cinematic strings and Mark Mullins’s melancholy trombone, and though it’s not as striking as “Beautiful Hat,” a Henry waltz from the album that followed, or as panoptic as 2017’s “Climb,” it illustrates how his songs often flourish simultaneously on different planes. The song opens with a frail, gently strummed guitar, its intonation maybe calling for adjustment, its strings carrying traces of grease from a chicken wing eaten four years earlier. Henry isn’t an antiquarian, but he does gravitate toward old guitars, small bodied twelve-fret guitars from the Depression era, or fourteen-fret Stellas of the type used by honor rolls of prewar bluesmen, who played them mostly, but not only, because they were accessible and affordable. Well-made modern acoustics can be great for articulation but blindingly HD. Whatever guitar Henry used on “Playboy,” you can picture it played with poor posture in the bedroom (spartan, I’m guessing) where the song’s sleepless narrator is finally taking stock. Henry isn’t a postmodernist—he’s someone who understands that Bessie Smith and Wallace Stevens were both modernists and is a kind of born-late modernist himself—but in this song there are postmodern layers of reference and irony. The song’s title may derive from Gloria Steinem’s exposé diary of her undercover work a Playboy Bunny, first published in 1963 as “A Bunny’s Tale” but later anthologized as “I Was a Playboy Bunny.” Long before Hugh Hefner, the word playboy generally connoted independent means, but Henry’s character, I believe, is more of a rambler who kept expenses low, weary but not old, not a libertine so much as a sensualist who realizes only in loneliness that his pleasures were selfish. He’s singing from the heart—and Henry inhabits him beautifully—but in the language of a plain but poetic screenplay for a Western produced when that guitar wasn’t so old.
I was a playboy
in love with the world
I walked with the angels
every stone was a pearl
Ferrando’s string arrangement is cinematic not only because it’s lush and sentimental but because the character can’t hear it. Henry wants you to see the room, but also the dolly and the painted backdrop.
“The Book of Common Prayer” is another waltz in D, a more straightforward one taken from Henry’s new album, The Gospel According to Water. The song is subtly a duo, David Piltch’s bass a heated mattress pad dialed just shy of three. Henry’s guitar sound this time is full-bodied. Over the past dozen years or so, he has more often than not used open guitar tunings, and on “The Book of Common Prayer” we get the beauty of the lowest string resounding a step lower than in standard tuning, and the harmonic color open tunings can facilitate. One hopes the song will be pitched to Willie Nelson, another fan of sad songs and waltzes. He’d appreciate how Henry blends porchy simplicity with wisps of folk-jazz, echoes of Tin Pan Alley—the bridge, for instance, starts on the leading tone (C-sharp diminished) and passes through a honky-tonkish secondary dominant (E7) on its way to the dominant. Henry the composer and arranger has in periods trailed Henry the lyricist, singer, producer, and conceptualist, but there are abundant musical pleasures in his music. All his albums could be enjoyed by streamers without a handy lyric sheet, most by listeners without English.
With the move to open tunings, Henry’s playing has become more spacious. Though he strums through most of “Prayer,” in recent years he has reduced his timekeeping role, or at least he more frequently lets chords ring out for half and whole notes, and he navigates more of the fretboard, usually for blues-indebted inbuilt parts more than licks. As a singer, too, he has become more of bluesman. He has always been a regular bender of notes, whether drawing on Van Morrison, George Jones, or Billie Holliday, but his slides, scoops, and other little glissandi have become brassier and more dramatic on his last six albums. His trills, too, as on “Climb,” have become more striking. Mannerism threatens, but he’s an inspiring singer who isn’t hemmed in even though he’s not holding vast technical resources. He’s a baritone, happiest in the octave below middle C and a few steps above it, though he’ll sometimes reach up to, say, the F-sharp above C without strain, and he can use the mike for sotto voce, boho-crooner effects, or dig in with a nasal, pleasantly cutting tone not unlike a Telecaster. He’s confident, expressive, in tune, reliable without being predictable.
“The Book of Common Prayer” starts in the second person and shifts to the first-person plural:
They put you in back rooms
where there’s always more people than chairs
and no table to hold up
the book of our most common prayer
In other words, it becomes a collective prayer, secular if you prefer, “to love and the breach it repairs.” Three other songs on the album spend some or all their time in the first-person plural, a mode Henry has often returned to on recent albums. Though Gospel has more uses of I than we, it isn’t populated with the hazy but perceptible characters who turned Henry’s earlier albums into elliptical multiperspective novellas. Henry reportedly imagined a single character for this album, and I guess you can hear that, though often you hear a character less than a poetic speaker, essayist, or liturgist. Like its two or three predecessors, The Gospel According to Water is a kind of wisdom literature, mystical at times. Because I abstractly thirst for wisdom but often feel skeptical and oppressed in the face of its articulation, and for musical reasons, I suspect I won’t come back to this album as often as I have to some of Henry’s others. That’s not really an evaluation; in some respects the album resists evaluation.
During a performance this spring at L.A.’s Largo, Henry announced that he’d been diagnosed with stage 4 prostate cancer. The cancer had metastasized to his spine. When Henry first got the news last November, he was given three to seven months to live. At the time of the show, and when he recorded The Gospel According to Water a month later, he was well enough to perform, but the prognosis was dire. All but one of the album’s songs had been written in a bursting few months, when Henry had enough energy to write but reason to believe death was imminent. In the end, treatments proved to be more effective than anticipated, and the cancer is now in remission. A fuller account of the vicissitudes of his illness can be found in several articles published in the past few weeks, including a long feature written for NPR by Grayson Haver Currin, and a shorter one for the New York Times by Jon Pareles.
“I’m not writing about cancer,” Henry told Pareles. “I wouldn’t and I wouldn’t know how.” Henry is a nonautobiographical songwriter. In the wide world of song, that’s hardly unusual, but his avoidance of personal narratives and apparent self-disclosure is more assiduous than most artists positioned as singer-songwriters. Even Randy Newman, whose monologues and micronarratives provided one model for Henry’s early work, began on Land of Dreams to pepper in sincere autobiography with his character studies, commentaries, and ongoing explorations of Randy Newman Man. Henry has no songs directly exploring his peripatetic childhood, no divorce album, no songs about the trials of fame or the pathos of its absence, no second-divorce album. (No divorces either; he and the artist Melanie Ciccone have been together since the eighties, an enduring union explored on parts of Henry’s 2014 album, Invisible Hour.)
Like a lot of fiction writers, Henry strives for transparency. He hopes the listener will become immersed in the song and forget the authorial voice or will over time find the voice too polyphonous to be delimited. I understand this desire but never feel obligated to fully play along. I want to be wrapped up and transported by art, sure, sometimes through a sense of recognition, sometimes through estrangement, and I’m drawn to artistic procedures designed to blur or conceal the self. But I’m also interested in the decisions that went into making the art. When I feel connected to a record or book, it’s usually because I feel aligned with or awed by an artist’s decisions, that I’m just taking in one good idea after another. It’s a sort of analytical or practical listening—for one thing, I’m looking for ideas to … borrow is the stock euphemism—but it’s also a way to preserve the illusory pleasures of fannish identification.
Anne Boyer’s The Undying, released this year, is an iconoclastic book of cultural criticism and a formally atypical memoir of her survival from triple-negative breast cancer. In it she writes, “I hate to accept, but do, that cancer’s near-criminal myth of singularity means any work about it always resembles testimony. It will be judged by its veracity or its utility or its depth of feeling but rarely by its form, which is its motor and its fury, which is a record of the motions of a struggle to know, if not the truth, then the weft of all competing lies.” Yes, there’s a crucial difference here: Boyer, among other things, is writing directly about cancer (and about the challenges of writing about it); Henry isn’t. The songs, he explains in his liner notes, “all bloomed quickly as I wrote them, growing most decidedly out of the black earth of a recent and alarming health diagnosis. But if I have any reluctance in sharing that with you—and I most certainly do—it’s not out of concern for my privacy, or fear that revealing too much might defeat a song’s mystery: it is because I’d never want to suggest that where a song comes from is what a song is.” And yet some of the problems of perception Boyer describes apply to The Gospel According to Water, insomuch as it’s difficult not to hear the album as a graceful document of near-death, testimony from its (lower-case) creator. That backstory sets up a row of orange pylons when you’re trying to reach the songs strictly as songs. The album is a moving, immediate piece of work whose weight and immediacy derive in part from its context. Once you have this context, suppressing it might not be possible or desirable.
Let’s come back to that. Just as Gospel will inevitably be heard, and is unavoidably being publicized, as a response to grave illness, it might only make sense as one dramatically exigent part of Henry’s body of work, his rigor and independence, proclivities and limitations.
Henry’s first distinguished album is his third, Shuffletown, released in 1990 during a brief and unprofitable stint with A&M Records. It’s a minor work compared to several of Henry’s later albums, but it’s worth lingering over because it establishes patterns, some later abandoned, many continued. Few noted them at the time: the label dropped Henry on the day of the album’s release. I guess someone shipped out promos—one came into the chain record store where I was working what I incorrectly believed would be a stopgap job—but on the whole the label promised neglect and delivered. Produced by T-Bone Burnett, the album’s clarity and spareness recalls the quieter moments on Burnett productions such as Elvis Costello’s King of America and Peter Case’s solo debut, influentially naturalistic recordings that aimed their muskets at a timelessness maybe only superficially less time-stamped than the Cure or Force MDs. As for Shuffletown, its performances can be too restrained, but they’re airy—the album was made in New York’s Clinton Recording Studio, a great-sounding, high-end room—and they shoot a few frayed cuffs, presumably arising from a procedural economy that would become a Henry ideal. The album was cut in four days live to two-track—that is, through a series of performance-style takes whose winners were of necessity the final stereo mixes. Using that back-to-basics method, you can make some corrections by editing between two takes close enough in tempo and tone, but there are no stages of overdubs and no mixing from multitrack to two-track. Shortly after Shuffletown’s release, Henry started working as Burnett’s assistant producer and eventually became a celebrated producer in his own right. He’s especially known for helming projects by artists in the late Novembers or early Decembers of their careers—Solomon Burke, Mose Allison, Joan Baez—but has also produced albums by younger, song-based eclectics such as Lizz Wright and Rhiannon Giddens. Some of these records have won Grammys and acclaim and become hits with the NPR crowd. He clearly loves the records he produces—they aren’t, to use a publishing analogy, the ghostwritten celebrity memoirs that pay for the midlist literary novels—but their success has presumably taken some commercial pressure off Henry as a recording and touring artist, so maybe they’re the midlist literary novels that help pay for the short-story collections and poetry.
At any rate, as a producer he has come to favor relatively short sessions in pursuit of more or less live takes, still the jazz norm but long rare in pop. His 2017 album, Thrum, was inventively mixed by Ryan Freeland as the music was being played. The thirteen songs that make up The Gospel According to Water were cut in two days and originally intended as publishing demos, though Henry arrived at S. Husky Höskolds’s studio with a few supporting musicians: pianist Patrick Warren; guitarist John Smith; and Henry’s son, Levon, a multireedist. David Piltch appears only on the song mentioned above; Allison Russell and JT Nero of Birds of Chicago overdubbed a few backing vocals a few weeks later.
In another production harbinger, Shuffletown’s session musicians, assembled by Henry, include two well-known jazz players: the bassist Cecil McBee and the trumpeter Don Cherry, who was finishing up his own two-album stint with A&M. Cherry is best known for his work in Ornette Coleman’s path-forging quartet of the late fifties and early sixties, and his appearance on Henry’s album turned out to be a bit of foreshadowing.
Though Henry’s albums are made up of discrete songs not in service to an overarching narrative, they tend to cohere tonally and hint at dramatic arcs. When putting together an album, he apparently thinks like an auteur—“I would rather be Orson Welles than Tom Petty,” he said during a 2013 performance and interview on Seattle’s KEXP—and the characters gathered on any of his albums do seem to be holding different scripts on the same soundstage. Shuffletown’s opening song is set in New York, and the couple in “Spent It All”—another winner in three-four—light out of Battle Creek, but many of the songs appear to be set in the same Southern mining town. Some appear to be set two to six decades in the past, or at least under eaves and in white clapboard churches that haven’t undergone renovation. In this world people tuck folded letters into the bottom of chifforobes rather than hide them in junk drawers underneath Magnavox manuals. Revving up the town’s sad-café jukebox late in the album, Henry does a convincing cover of Hank Cochran’s “Make the World Go Away.” It won’t.
Henry’s literary touchstones include poets—in an interview conducted by Scott Timburg for the Los Angeles Review of Books, he talks about what he has gleaned from Rilke, Stevens, William Carlos Williams, James Wright, and others—as well as fiction writers, and on Shuffletown his lyrics are like erasure poems made from stories by Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, or Allan Gurganus. Many of the plot points (and, alas, the jokes) have been Sharpied out, but telling or evocative details remain, and with subsequent albums he got still better at homing in on the right scrap of stage-setting, dialogue, or interiority (“I’m going to move myself into that room above the bank,” “I don’t know you to wear a hat / but I came home late and there it sat”). Back in Shuffletown Henry’s images were sometimes cobwebby, but he was already a careful lyricist and phrasemaker (I particularly admire “If the morning leaves you / with just the afternoon”). He’s not a traditional storyteller, but he’s a canny story suggester, especially on “Ben Turpin in the Army,” the first of Henry’s goosebump-great ballads, this one mysteriously connected, through an association its bewildered narrator doesn’t elucidate, to the silent-film-era comedian named in the title.
Particularly in the early nineties, when his music was most inflected with country styles and motifs, Henry sang with a slight drawl, stylized but also vestigial. He was born to Southerners in Charlotte, North Carolina, and after pinning a handful of tacks on the map wound up in the northern skirts of metro Detroit, where his father was an executive engineer for Chevy, and where Joe went to high school and first met his wife. Shuffletown has percussion and brushed snare but no drum kit, and the resulting space, as on The Gospel According to Water, showcases Henry’s singing. On Shuffletown, there are touches of Costello and countrypolitan balladeers, but Van Morrison is the most recognizable vocal influence, and with McBee, Cherry, and the other players fleshing out the songs, you hear the imprint of Astral Weeks and Veedon Fleece, of fluid improvisers settling into simple folk changes. Like most singers, Henry doesn’t have Morrison’s vocal chops or derring-do, but he does a lot with what he has. He’s good at laying into downbeats and other stressed beats, and he phrases (and writes) lines with a rhythmic ease that makes you forget when he isn’t using rhyme. He seems to thrive under Burnett’s tracking restrictions. There’s something about singing live for keeps, everyone playing the song rather than a framework for it, and Henry is clutch: he sang Gospel in two days while undergoing treatment for prostate cancer; I know singers whose voices are shot for a week if they stay for dessert and coffee at a loud restaurant.
Henry was twenty-eight when Shuffletown was recorded, young but not fresh-faced, and he was never much interested in projecting youth. An old soul, drawn more to rigor than vigor. Shuffletown has just one up-tempo song and only two that might readily tap toes. That stems in part from the drummerless format, but a paucity of higher metronome markings and a degree of rhythmic monotony drag down some of his other albums, including a few with a full band.
With its country inflections, provincial narratives, and record-collector influences, Shuffletown was a more gentrified cousin of Uncle Tupelo and other scrappy country-rock bands around which a subculture would form and be given various irritating names. In the early to midnineties, Henry shared a backlot with this camp, as documented on 1992’s Short Man’s Room and ’93’s higher fidelity Kindness of the World. The earlier album was recorded in a humble Minneapolis setting with backing from the Jayhawks augmented by Dave Boquist, Dan Murphy, and Mike Russell. It’s the only Joe Henry record that sounds like a bar, Henry’s vocals competing overmuch on rockier numbers with Gary Louris’s (burning) guitar and Ken Callahan’s snare. The Jayhawks are distinctive—Louris’s tone and fingers, the tenor harmonies—and Henry can seem like a guest on his own record. He’s more dominant on Kindness. This period produced some key Henry songs—the first album’s title track is one—but Henry reached full bloom by chasing a more hybridic Americana with patchwork studio bands.
Many of Henry’s musical heroes (Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman, Bob Dylan) were self-conscious vanguardists, and from these and other figures in and out of music he cultivated a taste for formal adventure, stylistic pivots, beauty enriched through tension. But like nearly everyone, including those who revere canonical innovators, Henry isn’t himself a vanguardist. He’s independent but not, to judge from his work, dispositionally provoking or helplessly eccentric. And he’s writing songs, often unusual songs, but nothing aside from stray instrumentals that would incite controversy as to whether it was a song at all. This during an era in which much of what sounded thrillingly unprecedented—from hip-hop, dance music, R&B, arty rock, whatever—upended song’s traditional components or placed them in previously impossible settings. Henry has navigated this elegantly. He’s in dialogue with established songwriting traditions to which he is devoted, but he’s energized by tampering with and recontextualizing those traditions. Compared to experimentalists working in less conservative subgenres, he hugs the shore more than he swims out to sea, but either way you haven’t quite seen the stroke before.
Henry has studied his Sticky Fingers—see 1993’s “Buckdancer’s Choice” and 2011’s “Unspeakable”—and Gilded Palace of Sin, but he’s not a born rocker even of one of the hyphenated types. After Kindness of the World, he felt stuck. Turned on by hip-hop producers, he bought a drum machine and started using the presets to build grooves in his home studio. The words and melodies for much of the material from Trampoline, the 1996 album mentioned at the top of this piece and coproduced by Henry and Patrick McCarthy, were written to Henry’s homemade tracks of loops, guitars, bass, and keyboards. All very normal: if you’ve danced to a record at a nightclub, there’s a good chance it was built from the groove up, overdubbing in the studio or through a band jamming. But the process can seem backwards to singer-songwriters. Henry’s mandate has never been to keep people from parking on the dance floor, and the difference between Trampoline and Henry’s previous work isn’t the difference between Remain in Light and Talking Heads 77. But funk elements invigorated Henry’s writing, and his lyrics snap into greater focus through the rhythmic variety that marked Trampoline and the records that followed it.
Some of what we hear on Trampoline’s mixes comes from Henry’s foundational demos, but additional tracking took place on and off from the winter of ’94 through the early summer of ’95. The album expands the strategy, tested on Shuffletown, of bringing together musicians from separate Rolodexes to meet the divergent needs of a batch of affiliated songs. So here we have Page Hamilton, of Helmet, and his precision-noise guitar, but also Bucky Baxter lugging his pedal steel and zither. “Flower Girl”—its opening lines: “Because there was no gold mine / I freed the dogs / and burned their sled”—has Tim O’Reagan’s just-the-facts drums, Henry’s pump organ, and mysterious orchestral and choral samples cheekily credited to Sonny Glare and the Ames Township Barber’s Choir. It was fashionable in the midnineties to adorn conventional songs with found sound and machinery, but “Flower Girl” is an unconventional song, scrawled in a nasty logbook and burned with the sled, that’s been given a fitting treatment.
The album’s title cut is aptly bouncy funk with Daryl Johnson on bass, Carla Azar on drums, and Henry on tremolo guitar and keyboard swells. It’s a sighing breakup song, short on cliché and long on grabby metaphor and simile (“My mind has never been so clear / but I stutter like an auctioneer”). Because melodic (and spoken) phrases tend to move up or down, getting a tune to imitate a trampoline is like getting a pail to resemble a bucket, but it’s nonetheless cool how this one does it, and a nice irony when the second line of the chorus—“This time I’m not coming down”—descends an octave. The last verse’s penultimate line (“When I could see myself the way you do”) is wonderfully phrased, with a tender, syncopated rest between “you” and “do.”
Trampoline is light on its feet but haunted and defeated, too, splotched with references to falling, crashing, coming down from mountainsides. To amplify this motif and spell out the album’s funk influences, Henry covered Sly Stone’s “Let Me Have It All.” For this Henry is reaching on tiptoes and still a footstool short, but the version is nonetheless credible and the lyrics—“Looking down it’s quite a drop”—chime as planned. Fuse, Henry’s next album, called in more session A-listers and calmly dug deeper into R&B. “Want Too Much” channels Here My Dear–period Marvin Gaye. The moody title track (“The carnies kick the gravel / and they wait for you in town”) is more original and gorgeously smooth, thanks in large part to Randy Jacobs’s bass and clean, bluesy guitar. In a trajectory familiar to fans of seventies singer-songwriters, Henry’s albums, for a run of three, got ever groovier, jazzier, and more expensive. Scar, co-produced by Craig Street, was made over a luxurious three weeks in late 2000 and features a dream band including drummer Brian Blade, pianist Brad Mehldau, and guitarist Marc Ribot. Me’shell Ndegeocello plays bass on two cuts: “Rough and Tumble” and an instrumental presumably served from “Rough and Tumble” leftovers.
The album opens with “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation,” a modified E-minor blues with a bridge, one of two songs in which Henry risks the contentious ventriloquism of a white man speaking through a black man who is both character and historical figure. It’s also an updated saloon song, origins Henry underscores by borrowing a line from Matt Dennis and Earl Brent’s “Angel Eyes,” a brooding standard with blues roots most famously recorded for Frank Sinatra’s landmark Only the Lonely. Immediately you notice the drums. Blade is one of the world’s most emotive, joyful drummers, completely in command but understated, and Henry, Street, and the engineer Höskolds process and reverberate his kit so it sounds ethereal yet always played. Blade and Mehldau had worked together in Joshua Redman’s quartet and in one of Mehldau’s early trios, and they have an obvious affinity. Mehldau is keenly responsive on this tune, matching, answering, and harmonizing Henry’s vocal. The core band would be enough, but there’s also Steve Barber’s orchestration, colorful and never extraneous.
Henry doesn’t do fast, but with languid tempos he has some of the smoldering expressiveness of the jazz singer and pianist Shirley Horn. In his book Every Song Ever, Ben Ratliff writes that certain extremely slow songs—the Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes for You” is one he cites, Sarah Vaughan’s “Lover Man” another—are “in some way acts of resistance, orchestrated protests during an extended period of industry.” That fits here, in that Pryor’s comedy was a complex act of resistance. Then again, just as some abstract paintings are named after figures the viewer can’t detect, the song is narrated by Richard Pryor only because its title asks us to think so. Its first verse:
Sometimes I think I’ve almost fooled myself
Sometimes I think I’ve almost fooled myself
Spreading out my wings
Above us like a tree
Laughing now, out loud
Almost like I was free
This could be one of many sympathetically bruised figures scattered around Henry’s albums from these years, quietly addressing offstage exes, updating bartenders, fighting addictions, about to schlepp a mattress up the creaky stairs over at the bank. Invoking Pryor, of course, adds heft, pathos, history, including the history of Black art, the history of white supremacism, the question of whether this monologue is Henry’s to deliver.
One of his answers to this problem, a means of giving voice to Pryor more collaboratively and multiculturally, was to ask Ornette Coleman, a master of blues and abstraction, to overdub an alto solo. In addition to rare sideman sessions mostly with close associates, Coleman appears on Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band and once sat in with the Grateful Dead, but he wasn’t the sort of guy you just call for a pop session. Through coincidence and fellow feeling, however, Coleman signed on. It’s everything you’d hope for. Where the rest of the band revels in slowness, Coleman lets out the cork with necklaces of sixteenth notes and triplets and free-time phrases, rests just as beautiful, wing-spreading high notes, almost like he was free. Richard Pryor, Ornette Coleman, Frank Sinatra: it’s like Henry has answered that New York Times Book Review question about which three people, living or dead, you’d invite to a dinner party, and pulled off the party. (The other song in which Henry sings in part through a famous black man is 2007’s “Our Song,” a deeply ambivalent American anthem—“It started badly and it’s ending wrong”—whose chorus is sung by Willie Mays, overheard at a Scottsdale Home Depot. Or it’s sung by the idea of Willie Mays: “But that was him, I’m almost sure,” the narrator eventually equivocates.)
Scar follows “Richard Pryor” with “Stop,” a mélange of Afro-Cuban elements, particularly from Ribot’s stinging guitar, and the quarter-note pulse of tango. Madonna, who is Henry’s sister-in-law, rewrote the song as “Don’t Tell Me,” leading to Henry’s lone brush with the Top 40. Next, “Mean Flower” lays down Henry’s high-water mark as an R&B interloper, with Mehldau putting in the sort soul-jazz piano requiring the word tasty with an exclamation point. (!) This album reads my mind.
These were flusher times for the recording industry. The co-producer, the three weeks, the star sidepeople, the orchestrations—those additional hours and collaborators helped create an album in which the music is consistently as beguiling and sophisticated as the lyrics, but Henry could only have carried on in this way by developing more fans and restricting access to the internet. Before long, even Donald Fagen was on a budget. During this century, Henry has returned to recording practices akin to those he and Burnett used for Shuffletown. He continues to collaborate with engineers, but he’s the sole producer on his albums, and he and the bands he puts together—guests as well as a regular group of collaborators, something of a shifting house band—typically cut basic tracks in four or five days.
In interviews touching on his production methods, such as one with the Nashville-based musician and podcaster Steve Dawson, Henry has explained that he doesn’t do preproduction. For a fairly traditional song-based record, preproduction involves a variety of steps that might include making demos ranging in density from voice-and-guitar run-throughs to multitrack blueprints; putting together charts, lead sheets, scores, or whatever sheet music is required; rehearsing the band; commissioning horn, string, or vocal arrangements; and meeting with key participants to define goals and map out strategies. Preproduction by adepts might yield something like George Benson’s “Give Me the Night,” dazzlingly realized by Quincy Jones and a football team of other masters. Stuff like that doesn’t just come together. But like elaborate outlining and storyboarding, preproduction can become too clinical, obstruct felicitous detours, or otherwise stymie the spirit heard on so many great jazz, rock, R&B, and country records made in short order. Henry, who plays by ear and couldn’t notate fancy arrangements on his own, is more interested in discovery than documentation, letting a song unfold in the studio rather than going in with labcoats to execute a refined arrangement. Before a session, he sends the players simple demos, asks them to come in prepared, and they work out arrangements while the tape (or virtual tape) rolls. There’s room for overdubbing and editing, but the basic sounds will be produced in that four or five days.
Tiny Voices, from 2003, and all subsequent Henry albums adhere to various degrees to this approach—or simplify it further, as on The Gospel According to Water. In another beginning, Tiny establishes Henry’s new, overgenerous album length of around an hour. Like Scar, Tiny Voices has its famous jazzmen—for these sessions, the trumpeter and cornetist Ron Miles, and the clarinetist and saxophonist Don Byron—along with players who were already or would become Henry regulars. Höskolds returns as the recording and mix engineer and applies his attuned but irreverent ideas about drum sounds to Jay Bellerose, who has ever since been Henry’s main drummer. Styles include more of the languid minor blues heard priorly on “Pryor” and, in what is now a rarity from Henry, a pop-rock tune, “Lighthouse,” with an eighth-note drive. Tiny Voices is approachable like all of Henry’s albums but has slices of discordance: runs of feline piano, guitar skronk, and some deliberate uglification, such as the piano processing on “Loves You Madly.” (Blood from Stars, Henry’s 2009 album, would make room for similar irruptions of chaos.) The album speaks competing truths: it indeed captures the feeling, the heartening and irreproducible communion, of a song first announcing itself with a band, the playing past the fumbling stage but still concentrated, parts and improvisational approaches settling but far from ossified; also the album is underarranged. I miss Scar’s polished layers, but Tiny Voices is more openhearted and includes some of Henry’s loveliest songs. In a rarity for Henry, “Flag” is most memorable for a singing instrumental hook, a six-note figure played by Miles with commentary from Byron over a I-IV change with extensions (E6 to Amaj9 works). Frankly, more could be made of it, and would have been for the Scar sessions, but it’s invitingly companionable and has its own loose grandeur.
The album’s lyrics are virtuosic. The opening song, “This Afternoon,” is set in and around the swimming pool of a hotel where the teenage narrator’s mother works in housekeeping. The song is full of inciting moments, class tension, sexual violence, striking images, and it’s all the more tense and absorbing because Henry has omitted so much exposition: we don’t know what country we’re in except that the Australian businessman mentioned suggests we’re not in Australia; we don’t know whether the narrator is a girl or a boy; and though the revolution mentioned in the opening lines seems to be political one, it might, too, be an internal one. (If you really want to, you could hunt out Henry glossing the song’s context in a short introduction; for me, the insight is diminishing.) In songs such as “Your Side of the World,” the perspective might change from verse to verse, or if not that, the settings change dramatically without transition. Henry has noted his admiration for Eudora Welty, and at times his shifts between verses remind me of the elisions between some of her paragraph breaks. The third verse of “Leaning,” a leaning as well as soaring tune featuring one of Henry’s greatest vocals and many crying swirls from Byron, demonstrates Henry’s wit as well as his gift for image and, again, metaphor and simile:
I’ve cut back your roses just to give myself a day
Free of vulgar beauties that I know
Will fade away;
The scene is like a circus chasing
Winners out of town,
Leaving here a wet street of mirror,
And I won’t dare look down
On Civilians, released in 2007, Henry and his next engineering aide-de-camp, Ryan Freeland, left behind the atmospheric segues and intentional disorder heard on Tiny Voices in pursuit of a more realistic sound. The album closes with a piano ballad, “God Only Knows,” played on what must be an upright piano. I don’t cry every time I hear it. Over the last twelve years, Henry has without calculation written a handful of what could be called occasional songs, songs so obviously substantial and broadly applicable, they could be played at and would not trivialize weddings, funerals, and other ceremonial occasions.
Henry rare co-writes songs, but Civilians contains a tune written with Loudon Wainwright III, a good one, though not one that uses the occasion to slip in a joke. Henry is often witty—as I hope some of the lyrics quoted above have shown; if not here’s another: “I wouldn’t stand for reason / and it never would sit down”—but unlike Wainwright, Bob Dylan, John Prine, and other singer-songwriters that sparked him when he was young, he never goes for an audible laugh. He isn’t dour—he’s a humanist, a realist, and in the end an optimist—but he’s impatient to get to the main course. His albums cohere not only because he brings together kindred songs but also because his essential seriousness keeps the focus on inexhaustible subjects—love, death, joy, sorrow, hunger romantic and spiritual—that can’t help speaking to each other. Few would be more equipped than he to write songs in the teeth of a life-threatening illness. All that said, the music he has made in the ten years or so leading up to The Gospel can seem unrelievedly rather than essentially serious. The run of albums from Trampoline to Scar, though reflecting Henry’s seriousness of purpose, had an enlarging rhythmic levity and a playfulness, sometimes arch but never unfeeling, a kind of fun. While Henry has broadened his scope as writer, the world of his songs has gotten smaller because it contains too little fun.
With Civilians and especially on the two following albums, Blood from Stars and Reverie, Henry grew still more interested in interacting with the harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, and poetic language of blues. He avoids the most familiar twelve-bar form—he might use twelve-bar verses but with chordal substitutions—and seems to draw inspiration especially from the varied repertoires of urban and rural blues and jazz artists of the twenties through the early forties rather than the postwar electric blues that has fueled so much blues-rock. Coinciding with this, he has drawn on blues, ballads, and poetic forms such as the villanelle to build systems for lyrical repetition and stanzaic circularity. The eight-line verses of “This Is My Favorite Cage,” for instance, use an ababaabb rhyme scheme and pattern of repeating lines that runs abcdcabd. In other words, the first line (“Oh, this is my favorite cage”) is also the sixth, the second also the seventh, and so on. For “River Floor,” the rhyme scheme is aabbbbaa while the line pattern inverts: abcddcba. You see this sort of thing sometimes in art songs and pop songs—Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “I Am Going to Like It Here” uses a strict pattern of repeated lines—but not often, and Henry does it subtly and artfully. (After this piece was originally written, I tried it myself but might have hued to closely overally to Henry’s model.)
Henry isn’t the sort of lyrics-driven songwriter who treats melody and harmony as an afterthought, but you’re not often confused about his priorities. Granted, his sensibility isn’t at heart a pop one, and in the last decade especially he’s often taking cues from forms—classic American folk and blues, Irish ballads, hymns—where a tune ought to be made up of a few sturdy melodic phrases and a satisfying cadence rather than swerves and flash. That said, his melodies are sometimes too ready to hand. In groups, songs begin to cluster and blur; on their own, they can plod. Listening to his music almost exclusively over this past week, I was happily reminded of his many indelible melodies, but I also started to jones for more leaps, more intervallic surprise, more instances in which the melody guides the lyric and harmony. “The Dark Is Light Enough” is 2017 song with an interesting melodic shape—it happens not to seduce me, but its movement is welcome. For me, too, the recent albums offer less instrumental excitement. They’re always expertly and sympathetically played—Bellerose and Piltch, for starters, are a simpatico and exciting rhythm section—but shorter on the sideperson thrills and intoxicating studio-band identity that enriched earlier albums.
Henry is starting to tour again and in February is coming to my Minneapolis, where I live and where he has long been loved. It occurred to me that, like few songwriters I can think of, he could perform any of his recorded songs of the last three decades without embarrassment and without the appearance of dusting off a period piece. For a moment I thought, Is that a good thing? Is it a product of someone who never writes sloppily and follows his heart, or a sign of overcaution, an excess of taste?
It’s a product of someone who never writes sloppily and follows his heart. I’m not sure if I’ll often return to The Gospel According to Water, but I suspect I’ll need to. Its songs were written and recorded in haste and crisis but are palpably at peace. Henry was wise to preserve their purity. The songs can and should be appreciated outside their context, but it’s no crime to let that context wash over you, to picture the session: an artist of rare dedication facing death by doing what he was called to do with help from a few friends and his own son.
“Leave your horse behind the chapel when you go,” he sings on the album’s last song, “Choir Boy.” The song is briefly, movingly familiar: for half a measure at the top of each verse, the song mirrors Bob Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll be Staying Here with You.” They’re the right notes, the right I-IV change, and the echo is right, too, as it was when Warren Zevon’s “Keep Me in Your Heart,” another song written and recorded after a cancer diagnosis, modeled its melody on Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country” and “Boots of Spanish Leather,” which in turn derived from “Scarborough Fair.” Melodies keep coming back, never the same. I still marvel at how many of them are, so many made up of so few elements, a never-ending game of Boggle.
Henry’s previous album, Thrum, closed with another beauty, “Keep Us in Song.” It’s a great love song, and an expression of Henry’s devotion to song and how that devotion relates to allegiances beyond song and encompassed by song: romantic, civic, familial, whichever. It starts:
The times as they change
are here to remind
that nothing has changed
not even time;
I’ve loved you forever
It hasn’t been long—
Just enough now
To keep us in song