Songs that get their hooks in you
by James M. Manheim
From the February, 2008 issue
I first encountered Joe Henry's name when I heard Garth Brooks's "Belleau Wood," a fabulously detailed and evocative song about the Christmas truce of 1914. Henry started out in country and Americana music, cowrote "Belleau Wood," and has since had the labels of "rock," "folk," and "alternative" attached to his own recordings. No genre label has stuck, which may explain why this superb songwriter has remained largely unknown in this world of machines that break music down into its attributes and use them to channel your tastes automatically. But between the Brooks song, some work as a producer, and a cut recorded by his sister-in-law, Madonna (the tango-flavored "Stop," which she retitled "Don't Tell Me"), he's had the wherewithal to do as he pleases, something rarer in popular music than is generally thought.
The result has been a body of songs that are startling in their combination of complexity and emotional power. Henry's voice sounds a bit like Randy Newman's, and a great deal like that of Mississippi songwriter Steve Forbert. The song's the thing, and the unclassifiability of Henry's music comes from his mix of song types, which he joins to really ambitious lyrics in such a way as to put a unique twist on the music. His superb new album, Civilians, opens with the cool shuffle beat of the title track. The song is a meditation on the toxic atmosphere of war as it seeps through a society our society. The lyric takes some concentration, but, as Henry often does, he pulls you through the door with a killer hook: "Life is short but, by the grace of God,/The night is long."
Sometimes the line that grabs your attention comes at the beginning. The centerpiece of Civilians is "Our Song," which opens this way:
| I saw Willie Mays |
At a Scottsdale Home Depot,
Looking at garage door springs
At the far end of the fourteenth row.
The song broadens outward to a bitter lament for "this frightful and this angry land" that "might still somehow make me a better man," circles back through its aging narrator, and returns at the end to "the greatest center fielder of all time, stooped by the burden of endless dreams his and yours and mine." It's a virtuoso effort that, like so many of Henry's pieces, will give any true lover of the songwriter's art enough to chew on for weeks.
If for no other reason, I'd be in Henry's corner merely because the lyrics in his CD booklet have accurate punctuation (see if you can think of another one). And also because, although it's not well known, he's a product of our town he got an English degree from the U-M and started making his music while he was still here. Joe Henry will be back at the Ark on Monday, February 4.
[Review published February 2008]
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