Sunday, April 29, 2012
"Along the Trembling Wire:" Joe Henry's Reverie
It's a funny thing to live with both hunger and satisfaction - fear and consolation - bouncing within your bones in equal measure, like the opposite ends of a tightrope walker's long pole: you can sight along one end to the other and sense its curved but strong line the truth of both impulses, bobbing and working to keep you upright along the trembling wire. Joe Henry in his liner notes to his album Reverie.
On occasion you stumble upon the work of a musician that feels eerily familiar to you. Exactly how I came to the music of Joe Henry the artist is still a little foggy to me. I've been familiar with Henry's work as a record producer for the past few years. He produced several of my favorite records of the recent past, including the Carolina Chocolate Drops' Genuine Negro Jig, Mary Gautier's Between Light and Dark, Allen Toussaint's The Bright Mississippi, and Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint's The River in Reverse. All of these albums were ones I found with little initial appreciation for the production. Aside from being impressed with the way Henry the Producer allowed the voices and instruments to breathe and move unencumbered by excessive production and effects, only recently did I really connect that the same guy was behind the boards on all these albums.
It's easy enough to find common threads between these specific albums. Costello's appreciation for the past, Toussaint's New Orleans jazz, Gautier's naked folk, and CCD's reactionary revolutionaries are all examples of deeply rooted appreciation for direct songwriting. No frills, fly on the wall, dust on the broom kind of song craft and instrumentation. It could be that once I realized that Henry was the fulcrum for the interconnectedness of these artists, I grew very curious about what his own songs might sound like. Not surprisingly, when I found myself hearing Henry's most recent album Reverie, I was struck with a feeling that Henry the artist is one who is very cognizant of words, melodies, and how they can bend to the point of breaking while still coalescing to create stories. Rooted and rusty, self aware and self deprecating, shingled and hinged, the songs of Reverie live and breathe in the contradictions they struggle with in themselves.
Over repeated listens to Reverie, one wonders if such contradictions are always present in the consciousness of the characters in the songs. Is the viewer of the movie shown on the side of the bank in the song Heaven's Escape aware that his declaration of love in following line ("I'm in love with all creation") might be related to the novel projection of the film? Later in the song there is an observation that "all that leaks through where we've driven the nail" reflects as a weakness back on the one who drove the nail in the first place. It might be this painful realization that finds its mirror in the seemingly unrelated juxtaposition of the film on the bank's wall, and the subsequent realization of creation's beauty. If there is a seemingly unrelated quality to the imagery of this particular song, it is through that veil of discordance that Henry slowly illustrates the growing self awareness of the speaker.
Elsewhere in songs like Grand Street we see a character who unabashedly admits his self-masking when he "smoked like it was something I did." Here one who is acting out of character might have some degree of envy for the song's night butcher, who "spoke to himself out loud." For a character who is knowingly presenting an unauthentic aspect of himself to the world, maybe the openness of brashly talking out loud to oneself holds some degree of worth. It is the weakness of some of the album's characters that gradually bleed toward one of the album's high points, Piano Furnace.
This oddly titled piece might be about some kind of rebirth, or maybe a raw reformation of oneself through the primal pain of music. Whether it's in the titular fire in the piano, or in the beating of the guitar for the sake of it being heard, or even the confession that is pulled out of said actions, it is this character who comes to "stand naked in smoke," and see the value of encouraging all to "let us stoke the fires of the world." It is significant that it isn't the one standing in the fire itself, but the one standing in smoke who sees the worth in allowing the fire to arrive.
Reverie is the first of Henry's albums that I've found, but it led me to several others. Each album does seem to have a musical theme, as well as some interconnectedness between the lyrical themes. This is indicative of Henry's skill as a musician and composer. The songs congeal around him, and he assembles musicians who might best interpret the loose, foggy set of sounds around him. These are songs of self awareness and self-deprication. Some might hear a pompous voice, but a closer listen will hear one who actively engages in listening to the progression of words and ideas, and how they dance within melodies. He is unafraid of writing for the intelligent, and unashamed to let the music breathe on its own, without being trampled by verbosity. Reverie is not an everyday album, but on days when it begs to be heard, it is revelatory.