Joe Henry’s ‘Civilians’ (2007)

Joe_michaelwilson My intent for this post was actually to start with some thoughts on Joe Henry's album Trampoline, the first JH record I ever bought and the one most credited for "redefining" his sound.

But after listening to Trampoline again for the first time in a while, I can confidently say that it is an excellent album with abundant charms, but it pales in comparison to Henry's subsequent records.  Civilians, on the other hand, has continued to dig its claws into me time and again, almost two years after its release.

When I was compiling my Best of 2007 lists at the end of that year, I was torn between Civilians and Patty Griffin's Children Running Through when deciding my favorite album of the year.  I still love Griffin's record, but it hasn't remained in near-constant rotation the way Civilians has.  At this point, I don't mind calling Civilians my favorite album of the past five years (with Sam Phillips' A Boot and A Shoe just recently passing its five year anniversary).

The album stands out in the Henry discography for a few reasons, but its most obvious trait is that it's Henry's most musically straightforward effort since Kindness Of The World, his last record to fall roughly into the "alt-country" genre.  But Civilians is in no way a throwback to his early efforts.  It retains the lyrical sharpness of Tiny Voices and Scar, and the arrangements are often more complex and layered than they initially sound upon first listen.  Guitarists Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz sprinkle all kinds of texture on the songs, and Patrick Warren's piano coaxes subtle beauty out of the simplest chords.  To say nothing of drummer Jay Bellerose, who is indisputably the best percussionist on the planet.

I've puzzled over the lyrics on Civilians quite a bit, trying to explain why this album grips me so much.  I suppose I could boil it – and the appeal of many JH records – down to the fact that his imagery and metaphor is specific and rich without being trite or obvious.  The most specific example I can offer is the role that garage door springs – yes, garage door springs – play in "Our Song" and what they come to represent at the end of the song.  Not only does Henry fill mundane objects with meaning, his themes could just as easily represent America as a whole or the couple portrayed in the song (Willie Mays and his wife) or perhaps or own families.  The song is the virtual embodiment of a "universal theme" that cuts directly to the personal.  In that way, Civilians is different from much of Henry's other work, especially the almost Fellini-esque imagery of its predecessor Tiny Voices (I'm not sure what a drunk businessman in a hotel pool represents, but it's sure to give me lots to talk about in a future blog post).

A poster over at Arts & Faith, a message board that follows JH somewhat closely, recently questioned whether some other posters were trying to shoehorn Civilians into a masterworks trilogy that would also include Henry's upcoming album Blood From Stars (note: why Christians are so drawn to Henry's work might make a good blog post as well).  I can only respond that, to my ears, Civilians stands apart – and in many ways, above – Henry's other work due its directness and relative nakedness.  It's no less muscially challenging than, say, Scar or Tiny Voices, but it is most certainly less obtuse.  That poster will most likely find much to love in Blood From Stars (as I do myself), but if Civilians is not wholly representative of Joe Henry's discography, it is arguably his most heartfelt work.  A few critics have already implied that Blood From Stars is his best album yet, but I'd be hard-pressed to rank it higher than Civilians.  However, the beauty of Joe Henry's work is that it simply cannot be represented by a single album, no matter how perfect.  It says something that fans might argue which album – or albums – qualify as such.

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