If an artist is known by the company he keeps, then Joe Henry must have baffled more than a few people. Over a career that spans more than two decades, the critically acclaimed songwriter and Grammy-winning producer has recorded albums that have been loosely and inaccurately categorized as rock, folk, jazz, and alt-country, and has worked with artists as diverse as Ornette Coleman, Elvis Costello, Allen Toussaint, The Jayhawks, Solomon Burke, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Brad Mehldau, Mavis Staples, and Madonna. Good luck trying to find the common musical denominator in those lists. Perhaps “great” is the best one can do, and Joe Henry is probably quite content to keep it that way.
Reverie, Henry’s twelfth album, continues the eclectic, uncategorizable streak, and is the latest installment in willful genre obliteration and poetic exploration. Like most of the albums he’s made for the past decade, Reverie is lounge music of a sort, but it’s music from the coolest lounge in the universe, the one where the piano player quotes T.S. Eliot and Raymond Chandler before last call, and where the patrons all drink their bourbon neat and play Tom Waits on the jukebox between sets. Call it lounge noir if you must, but whatever it is it’s desperate, and desperately tender, tinged with an aching sadness and the flicker of hope, with the increasing awareness that the small dramas enacted here and now are not really small at all, and that they echo and ripple through our lives.
Aided and abetted by the musicians who have now played with him for the better part of a decade – drummer Jay Bellerose, bassist David Piltch, pianist Keefus Ciancia, and guitarist Marc Ribot – Joe Henry unfurls his songs of memory and longing, cinematic detail and impressionistic transcendence. Like the best poets, his imagery is both unequivocally explicit and sublimely grand, attuned to big themes even as he limns the interchangeable days of ordinary people. He captures tiny, specific moments with a master painter’s precision – an old Henry Fonda film projected against the side of a bank, the back door of a hotel propped open by a kitchen worker’s foot – but those moments serve as gateways to something deeper and richer; seemingly insignificant gestures and memories transformed into epiphanies of self-awareness and compassion toward the wider world. That’s not bad for a piano trio with a gonzo guitarist. Or for a man whose phrasing is a bit like Sinatra’s, but who writes the blues like Langston Hughes.
The evolution has been anything but linear. The early albums, deeply indebted to Bob Dylan and folk-rock anthems, gave way to sparse, acoustic ruminations, which gave way to pedal steel and poetry, which gave way in turn to whatever it is that Joe Henry has been doing since Trampoline, the 1996 album that marked a transitional turning point. Mostly he makes a lovely racket, the music reminiscent of both Tom Waits’ trashcan symphonies and the great improvisational piano trios of Duke Ellington and Bill Evans.
There are love songs on these albums, inevitably, and they sound like the songs of real people in real relationships, people who bicker and snipe at one another, who can’t stand one another, and who often can’t stand themselves, but who recognize the glory and the sweetness of the light when they see it. And there are songs written in other voices. Joe Henry is anything but a reliable narrator, and his storytelling voice is as likely to reflect the mind of a creepy pedophile at a swimming pool, or a desperate drug addict, as it is an award-winning, urbane songwriter named Joe Henry. The songs stand alone and together, each a self-contained little poetic gem, but each also commenting on the others. The images recur and shift, and the same phrase takes on a different meaning in a different context. In other words, this is a man who still makes albums as albums. Remember those?
Mostly these are the songs of conflicted human beings, and nobody writes songs about conflicted human beings better than Joe Henry. A few albums back he wrote one about Richard Pryor that pretty much set the standard for how to portray self-absorbed jerks and geniuses who inhabit the same body, then he did it all over again with a song about Charlie Parker, surely nobody’s idea of a saint, but a marvelously gifted musician who was touched by the divine just the same. He does it on Reverie with a song about the sad, suicidal genius Vic Chesnutt, a paraplegic musician and songwriter of uncommon wit and humor, and a close observer of twisted humanity.
This is the mysterious, seductive alchemy of Joe Henry’s music. “My hands are wet from walking,” Henry sings, this time in the voice of Vic Chesnutt in his wheelchair, and the world opens up, as it tends to do in his songs, in unexpected and startling ways. He’s been doing this for a long time now, but the epiphanies are always fresh and new.