Singer-songwriter Joe Henry — the literate purveyor of a kind of folk-imbued, smokily jazzified, contemporary “adult music” that in a far better world would reside at the top of the pop charts — has been making solo albums since the mid-'80s. But you might know Henry better by his 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 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 slapback. It's a semicontemporary sound, coming off like a layering of times and places, people and things.
This supremely crafted music comes from a producer whose diverse experiences 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,” Henry 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. That the album feels in sum so solidly conceived, and weighty, like an epic Western, is probably due to the organic way Henry allowed emotional themes to emerge. 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.”
Harking back to the stately marches and gentle waltzes of older 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 a lyrical and sonic stencil for many of the songs that followed, which Henry characterizes as “emotionally political and religiously emotional.”
Befitting its ostensible theme of how hard it can be to justify one's patriotism — but also how difficult it is to let it go — 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 topical.
With reference to the legend of the madly obsessive Charlie Parker, the gentle shamble and surprising chords of “Parker's Mood” bring home, Henry says, “the idea that sometimes something 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 Mays in the song, and “it's my right if the worst of it may still make me a better man.”
Civilians is built to be best experienced as you 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.”