(Ed. note: I recently began pounding away at the keyboard in yet another futile attempt to somehow adequately express my reaction to a Joe Henry album. Happily, I discovered that I had nearly completed the following essay nearly a month ago. Based on that timetable, this was written after spending a month with Reverie. Since that time, my opinion has solidified but certainly doesn't differ in many ways from the words I originally wrote. With that in mind, I reserve the right to revise and embellish my opinion in the future. But I thought I should at least enter these thoughts into the public record.)
Joe Henry gathers in the basement of Garfield House with three trusted allies. Four days will be allotted for these sessions, with no particular endgame in mind. These might be the first sessions for an album or – as it mostly turns out – the sessions for the complete album. The windows are thrown open, allowing the neighborhood to hear their work and, more crucially, allowing us, the listeners, to hear the neighborhood. The spring breeze, nearby dogs and passing cars will collectively become the unofficial fifth instrument for these sessions.
The above description would not likely accompany the press release for any other album. You might assume from the description that Reverie is little more than a collection of raw demos or song sketches, and for any other artist, this would likely be the case. However, it seems to be that Joe Henry has been gently nudging himself and his musicians in this direction for years. He has often said that, as a producer and an artist, he regards all recording techniques valid so long as they are in the service of offering an emotional connection to the listener on the other end. A very egalitarian notion, but it’s clear that Henry prefers to create records that capture the magic of the songs being discovered in the moment. This is not so much a question of speed – though Henry creates records at a comparatively breathtaking pace – but a matter of focus and immersion.
On Reverie, his third now in a trilogy of albums recorded at Garfield House (quite literally his Basement Tapes), Henry and his crew chose to operate with an abundance of economy. So yes, it is “raw” and “acoustic” and “intimate” – as the NPR journalists will tell you. But it is also rich and layered, just like most other Henry albums. The minimalism of instruments provides ample space for the musicians to explore and weave their respective magic, perhaps more so than any of his records since Scar. Never before has Henry’s own guitar work featured so prominently, and Keefus Ciancia’s piano adds depth and color throughout. As always, the rhythm section of Jay Bellerose and David Piltch creates absolute splendor where one often least expects it.
Saying that Reverie is Henry’s best album is no easier than saying it might be my favorite. Subjecting his records to such inadequate rankings serves little purpose, ignoring the fact that the artist is still batting a thousand, at least since Tiny Voices (or several albums prior). Indeed, it might be my favorite – just as on certain days it might be Civilians, or Tiny Voices, or Blood From Stars. It is almost as if Henry is merely adding chapters to a great American novel, and this latest installment illuminates previous ones merely by daring to depart in key ways from its predecessors. Reverie would be stunning merely for Henry’s dogged refusal to repeat himself. The songs on Reverie, however, appear imbued with more hard-won wisdom than is even usual for his work. Perhaps it is the unadorned presentation of the songs, chiseled to a fine point by some of the finest musicians on the planet. Or perhaps we are continuing to witness the work of a peerless artist, not operating at the top of his game but trudging uphill toward it.