Few singer-songwriters can capture a mood the same way that Joe Henry can. From the melancholy romance of 2001’s Scar, to the disorienting carnival of Tiny Voices, to the darkly haunting sense of unrest of 2007’s Civilians, each album is like a vivid collection of portraits. And his songs are the puffs of smoke floating through an empty bar, the ring of condensation beneath the martini glass, the rain soaked streets, the buzzing neon lights and the shadowy figures in the background. His melodies are so rich and cool, it’s hard not to want to be inside his songs.
On his newest full-length, his 11th overall, Henry once again crafts an album heavy in mood and atmosphere. It’s rhythmic but restrained, as Henry maintains a beautifully inebriated dreamlike state throughout, sometimes getting romantically swept up in a ballad like “This is My Favorite Cage,” and often kicking up a dark, Tom Waits like blues number, and working with longtime Waits collaborator Marc Ribot certainly helps. More like his Tiny Voices album than his most recent effort, Blood From Stars has a similarly ominous feel throughout, reflecting the terrifying Lynch-ian industrial scene on the album’s cover.
Henry kicks off the album with “The Man I Keep Hid,” a jazzy, tin pan alley blues that finds the California troubadour warning of his darker side, as he “spoke in ways that were strange to you/ whispered things even money won’t do.” The powerfully building “Channel” could very well be a sweet love song, but not without shadows creeping in, particularly as Henry sings “ I love you with all due desperation, and disarray.” “Death To the Storm,” in both literal and figurative terms, finds its subjects (possibly tragically) faced with angry weather, while the slowly rumbling “All Blues Hail Mary” is simply one of the most badass things Henry has ever recorded.
“Bellwether” begins the album’s second half, another bluesy stomp that starts off with only Henry and his guitar before it almost quite literally explodes into a devilish cabaret romp. The pretty instrumental “Over Her Shoulder” finds Henry’s son Levon taking over on saxophone, to gorgeous effect, making for a soothing candlelit respite from the sinister spirits lurking in the tracks that surround it. Yet they return immediately on “Suit on a Frame,” one of the album’s coolest tracks, with an irresistible two-chord groove that juxtaposes a sense of fiendish fun against Henry’s spooky narration. As the album draws to a close, penultimate track “Stars” finds Henry only intensifying the sense of hopelessness with lines like “The clouds have drawn a curtain where the stars have gone astray/ taking our tomorrow like it was yesterday.” But just as all seems beyond redemption, Henry offers a glimpse of light on closing track “Light No Lamp,” as he croons “Shadow’s fear covers you like clothes/ but likewise so does love and grace.”
Certainly, there’s very little optimism or joy to be found on Blood From Stars, but the darkness that Henry stirs up throughout is endlessly compelling. Much like his prior albums, this effort is one that envelops the listener, inviting him for a drink and a cigar before everything goes unexpectedly hazy. And yet that eerie and disorienting experience is one worth revisiting over and over. It’s a beautifully sinister work of art, and one of the finest of Henry’s career.
Tom Waits – Real Gone
Jim White – Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See
Mark Eitzel – The Invisible Man
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.