Read Thom Jurek’s Unedited & Unabridged Review of REVERIE

4.5 Stars (out of 5)
Joe Henry has recorded five albums in the 21st century and a dozen since 1986. In addition, he’s an in-demand, Grammy-winning producer. On Reverie, both of these talents are woven into his most ambitious collection of songs yet, albeit in mercurial and unexpected ways. Out of the new century’s albums — Scar (2001), Tiny Voices (2003), Civilians (2007), and Blood from Stars (2009) — it’s Reverie that offers a view of an artist at his most musically ambitious and lyrically cagey. As its title implies, these 14 songs seemingly center on the concept of time: the random, glinting, memory of it as it perceives love, loss, spirituality, history, and culture, refracted through the piercing, open gaze of the human heart. Like the very best songwriters, Henry is able to move back through historical time, capture the spirit of various eras without nostalgia, blur them, and scratch them into his own present. On Reverie, America, a sad, fathomless, and utterly beautiful place, is offered to the listener through a tarnished, cracked, and well-worn personal telescopic lens. He opens it up onto a world he perhaps never inhabited, but can fully imagine and sing about because of his gift for marrying pre- and post-World War II pop melodies, gospel, folk, and jazz, to images, scenes, and settings that are informed by visual art — painterly, cinematic, and photographic — fiction and poetry, as well as song. He pays sly tributes to various musical heroes and heroines: it’s up to the listener to decode which ones.

Given Henry’s rep as a producer who brings the character out in artists who hire him, Reverie is the loosest, seemingly least “careful” album he’s ever recorded (on the surface, anyway). Its production techniques are organic: live sessions were cut in Garfield House (his home) studio with the windows open — allowing the sounds of everyday life to pour through and be captured on tape, making them part and parcel of the album. That said, this looseness, and what some call “rawness,” is deceptive. Henry’s lyrics and melodies reveal an exacting craftsman. It’s not that the immediacy is an affect; it’s not. It’s simply that the discipline of Henry and his trio — drummer Jay Bellerose, pianist Keefus Ciancia, and bassist David Piltch (with cameos by Patrick Warren, Marc Ribot, Jean McLain, and Lisa Hannigan) -– have been together long enough that they are able to get quite specific in terms of groove, mood, and feel. And they need to: Henry’s lyrics, while full of scattershot, mercurial expressions of memory, warning, reflection, and wry humor, are captured in razor sharp rhymes. While his narratives may not be exactly linear, they are nonetheless carefully woven into a storyteller’s fabric provided sonically by his guitar playing, singing, and the trio’s expert interplay. (Henry has, through the years, become a formidable guitarist with an exquisite rhythmic palette.)

The loose and sometimes noisy — not dissonant — atmospherics inform the two elemental concerns in these songs: Time, with its inevitable slippage ever forward — no matter how often we look to the past for inspiration and guidance, certainly — but also, to a greater degree, perhaps, desire. As Henry blatantly states at the end of his liner essay: “… there is no life beyond trembling [snort] no true consolation for desire, because desire does not wish to be consoled, only sustained and held in that terrible holy state of longing.” All 14 of these songs reflect directly on the power, delight, and torment of desire. The musical forms are rhythmically and harmonically inventive, as they serve his lyrical precision by opening his rhymes up to the foil of time itself. It intrudes and extrudes; it inhabits and escapes. Lyrics are impossible to quote, because to do so, no matter how fragmental or thorough, would remove them from their context: The music. Here, Henry’s music doesn’t simply accompany them, it is the skin they exist inside, their heart beat, even as they try to break free. It carries them, comfortably or not, into the maelstrom of life in the process of being lived, no matter where, or when. While one might argue that they can stand alone as poetry, without their fleshy, rooted, physical body of sound, they would lose half their meaning. Henry songs work on several levels simultaneously; they offer several possible narratives at any given time. It’s a sophisticated sleight of hand to be sure, but it comes straight from the heart. And he’s so easy and seductive on the ear; the listener is rarely, if ever, knocked off the path by his musical frames because of their organic architectures.

On the opening waltz (they are numerous on Reverie), “Heaven’s Escape (Henry Fonda on the Bank of America),” is where Prohibition-era pop meets Billy Strayhorn’s songlike melodic sensibility; from the dancefloor of a haunted ballroom, it’s lover’s petition being sung in the street. Ciancia’s piano and Bellerose’s beautiful rolls on snare and tom-toms are prevalent but restrained; there isn’t an extra note anywhere. The irony inherent in the lyric is romantic and prophetic, it emanates from the ether of a national consciousness which creates, by turns, its own definitions of redemption and ruination. The gospel piano and military snare on “Odetta” comes out of the church and enters the bone. Bellerose’s drums root the tune in the moment yet hearken back to the Civil War era; Ciancia’s piano, with ever-widening chords and shimmering harmonies, carries Henry’s weary, longing lyric, while McLain’s wailing harmony on the refrains lifts the protagonist’s spirit to embrace the fact that nothing is as it seems, though he still longs to transcend it. “After the War” (which one we don’t know) offers Henry’s jazzman phrasing as the grain of his voice caresses the restrained buzzing of his acoustic guitar, Bellerose’s whispering gongs, and Ciancia’s economically illustrative piano. It’s a compelling exception on this record, where Henry allows his tight lyric an open, floating melody and an elusive, rhythmic liberty. McLain’s soul-drenched voice, down in the mix, introduces a greasy cabaret blues with the rhythm section in “Sticks and Stones”; Henry‘s strutting acoustic guitar counters with a gutbucket 4/4 tango, and Bellerose provides a surprisingly kinetic drum improv break, even as the changes remain static. Piltch’s bass accents the end of every line, acting as the track’s true north, and as a precursor to its dynamics with the guiding presence of a timekeeper. “Grand Street” is a foggy darkness-meets-dawn waltz, with Ciancia’s piano subtly accenting shifts in Henry’s most direct and cinematic-sounding narrative. “Tomorrow Is October,” with its flamenco-tinged guitar, is a nearly mournful tome to acceptance, though the ragged, hoarse whisper of desire’s want is never absent. “Deathbed Version (After Billy the Kid)” is informed by country-blues, and more mysterious sources which may reference the work of such diverse sources as filmmaker Sam Peckinpah, composer Aaron Copland, or novelist Michael Ondaatje. We never know for sure — we can’t — and it’s because of this that the song’s lyric slips from its frame just enough to call out across the plains of history and myth for answers that aren’t immediately forthcoming. Henry presents his subject as a physically present, flesh-like creature, yet knows he’s a ghost of an American West, once wild, now forgotten; an icon without a retinue. Lyrical and musical repetition makes the narrative a blurry question mark for the listener to confront. With its forbidding piano, “Strung” transcends its waltz time to enter the theatrical. Bellerose and Piltch swagger the tempo and Henry’s chords decide — sometimes seemingly randomly– where in this saloon song they are, even where accents belong. Here is where Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weill meet Sam Shepard and Bob Dylan on the littered floor of a barroom with a spidery, cracked, dirty mirror reflecting their images back, circus-like, in a naked confession, delivered without rancor or boast. Another stunning example of Henry’s ability to wed taut lyrics with sprawling meanings to quicksilver musical forms is “Piano Furnace,” with guest vocalist Lisa Hannigan (whose forthcoming album Henry produced). It is the most forlorn waltz on the set, melding a languid jazz feel to the late pop melancholy of Frank Sinatra’s “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.”

“Room at Arles,” a lament for and celebration of Vic Chesnutt, is not only fitting but utterly beautiful in its empathic rendering. Henry’s phrasing is his own, but one can hear trace elements that remind us of Ray Nance singing a lament with the rhythm section of Duke Ellington’s band of the early ’50s. Formally and non-judgmentally, lyrically and musically, the song evokes Chesnutt’s spirit as it displayed itself in his songs, on stages and in empty rooms near the end of his life, never absent his gift, only his will to continue carrying its weight given his physical limitations. It stands out in this collection full of gems. ”Eyes Out for You” is a nomad’s love song disguised as a midtempo waltz. Its equal here, in terms of immediate melodic accessibility, to “Odetta.” Its protagonist desires to leave the boundaries of country, the physical world, and fixed notions of himself behind, in order to more to fully embrace his own life and his beloved’s. It is arguably a musical prayer, not to a god, but to the sanctity of life as a condition of spiritual and carnal desire, offered to the lover who embodies all that is needed to slake this holy thirst. Kissed by folk and country, “Unspeakable,” moves beyond those two genres to embrace gospel and parlor music as well in an off kilter shuffle. Lyrically, it’s passionate and dangerous; its expression of desire so great, it needed to be articulated in identifiable musical vernaculars to enter the realm of language. The closer, “The World and All I Know,” with guitar and pump organ, embodies in muted tones an awed bewilderment not unlike James Wright’s poems do. It’s a love song, although to whom and to what is unknowable, save to the protagonist, and he’s not saying although he reveals it in every line.

Reverie speaks its truths over and over again, yet they’re far from monotonous. Their constructions are so inventive and engaging you’d need sawdust instead of blood in your veins not to be drawn into these mysterious, internal worlds which Henry dots with familiar aural, physical, and visual guideposts. The album bears a double-edged title: it not only refers to the memory of the songwriter in his various guises as storyteller, but it’s also what happens when these songs enter into the realm of the listener. From the musical evidence provided, it appears that, for Henry, acceptance and the often quiet hunger of ravenous desire are not opposing poles of tension, but rather companions on a journey through time’s slippery machinations that embody desire’s seduction and grace. His own voice may be somewhat masked by those of his protagonists — whose reflections, loves, struggles, tears, victories, and failures bridge both concepts — but it’s also always there, identifying each song as his own. Over the course of his last five records, that individual voice has become stronger, yet also more wily in its feints and beautifully attired disguises, and it’s noticeably acute on the trilogy of albums recorded at Garfield House, the other two being Civilians and Blood from Stars.
On Reverie, even as desire is a motivating force for all that is creative and risky, time itself, ever escaping and impossible to escape from, looks back through it for new information via reflection, historical wisdom, folly, and memory, in order to accept, refuse or rebel against the present. Henry trudges this path willfully and fearlessly. In doing so, he makes connections between disciplines — musical, literary, visual, spiritual, and psychological — that serve to further define Americana, not as a musical genre, but as an expansive cultural enigma that remains elastic and lubricous, impossible to pin down and very much alive. ~ Thom Jurek, All-Music Guide