Joe Henry’s career, spanning a couple decades, has produced a diverse array of albums, ranging from his alt-country beginnings to his more soulful and jazz-influenced work from the mid ’90s and on. What’s more, his career has produced more than a few essentials; Trampoline was the first of a string of great forays into jazzy, smoky pop, while Fuse merely continued the trend with an even stronger set of songs. Scar found Henry playing alongside Ornette Coleman and Meshell Ndege’ocello while evoking the romantic balladry of Chet Baker. And on Tiny Voices, his debut for Anti, he unleashed his most impressive, sprawling work, combining all of the varied facets of his prior three albums and expanding them into an ambitious opus. Not to mention he’s produced albums by Solomon Burke and Ani DiFranco and wrote a hit for Madonna.
With Civilians, Henry’s tenth album, the troubadour gets back to basics, to some degree, scaling back the big arrangements of Tiny Voices and steering away from the oblique abstraction of Scar. Yet this is still very much the same Joe Henry that rewrote the definition of Americana in the late ’90s. His melodic sensibility is as tender and soulful as ever, emotions swelling with the weeping melody in “Civil War.” And each song, as usual, reads like short story, a unique perspective paired with every muted guitar riff.
In typical fashion, the title track opens the album in a low-key manner, yet to the contrary of songs like “This Afternoon” or “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation,” it’s less about a tense sparseness than a good groove. “Parker’s Mood,” which is named for a Charlie Parker song, offers a fair share of what its title suggests, Henry delivering cleverly twisted lines like “drunk on the victory of my own defeat.” Though the initial three tracks are a bit on the quiet side, “Time Is a Lion” picks up the pace with a sinister stomp and more of Henry’s wordplay, in this instance much darker: “Death and disgrace can seduce anyone / That needs to believe there’s judgment at hand / God may be kind and see you like a son / But time is a lion and you are a lamb.”
“Scare Me To Death” is a beautiful, drunken waltz, with mandolin ringing beneath a silky guitar and Henry’s own impassioned baritone, while the song that follows, “Our Song,” is as poignant and masterfully written political song as one is bound to hear this decade. As much as everyone has their hearts in the right place, not everyone can pull off such a feat without sounding a bit dated in time. Not so with Henry. His own lyricism is sad and poetic, while still getting the point across: “Though it started badly and it’s ending wrong/This was my country/This frightful and this angry land/But it’s my right if the worst of it might/Still make me a better man.”
Civilians doesn’t quite strike with the same lush power as Tiny Voices or the same mystique as Scar. Rather, it’s simpler and more direct, without as many bells and whistles. But it’s an album with a lot of heart, and a prime piece of American songwriting, which is exactly what anyone should come to expect from Joe Henry by now.
MP3: “Time is a Lion”
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.