Thursday, 2 May 2013

Albums for Life: 11: Joe Henry: Civilians

"The worst of life is beautiful
As it slips away in full retreat"

Why do I admire Joe Henry and his work so much?
Maybe it's his work ethic, production skills, his ability to conjure muscular musical projects out of thin air. Maybe it's his seeming lack of ego; he's a spirited and funny guy, but everything he does seems to serve the song. And there's a definite sense that he needs to develop to survive; every album has a new musical template, an ever inquisitive and playful sonic sensibility, a fresh soundscape to reinvigourate and reengage both himself and the listener. And every Joe Henry album sounds sublime; he uses great musicians and envelops their playing in the perfect ambience. There's an inherent intelligence in the way he develops his musical and lyrical themes; an undercurrent of  benevolence in the unravelling of wisdom; he's not just working his way towards a chorus; you can hear the man thinking, developing his ideas as he charts the strengths and weaknesses of what it is to be human.
That's it: there's an ambience of humanity about everything he does; could be that he's the closest thing we have in music to Raymond Carver.
Check out the lyrics to 'God Only Knows:'

Darkness settles on the ground
Leaves the day stumbling blind
Coming to a quiet close
And maybe just in time
We almost lost the heart to know
How to keep our best in mind
We almost lost the heart to know
How to keep our best in mind

Time has turned an angry face
Throws a dark eye back to sea
What will pass for mercy now
We practice unforgivingly
As if might and will make right
Or either one will make us free
As if might and will make right
Or either one will make us free

Lovers laugh and cross this way
Weaving out and into the street
It seems we never were so young
Or it was never quite so sweet
But the world is always beautiful
When it’s seen in full retreat
The worst of life is beautiful
As it slips away in full retreat

God only knows that we can we do
No more or less than he’ll allow
God only knows that we mean well
God knows that we just don’t know how
But I’ll try to be your light in love
And pray that is enough for now
I’ll try to be your light in love
And pray that is enough for now
I’ll pray that is enough for now

Maybe he's everything that I'd like to be, given the other life... if that sounds too close to worship for comfort well, God only knows... we all need inspiration.
Beyond divinity we certainly share one love: coffee.
Joe even has his own blend: 'Jack the Bear':

"I consider coffee to be a religious discipline of sorts: it begins my day, like prayer does for some; is a sacrament at every familial function, friendly gathering, and every celebratory or solemn occasion. If I venture out for a walk in a strange city, the quest for it directs me along my way. I offer it to every soul who enters my house, and likewise I would never refuse its offer without due cause, any more than I would refuse someone’s handshake. It’s not so much a substance, I mean, as a way of life… a true habit of my being.

I'm still struggling to work out which is my favourite Joe Henry album, a happy dilemma. They all have different characteristics and resonate so personally. It could well be that I choose an album for one song only. Currently my four favourite songs of his are 'Scar' (from 'Scar'), the afore mentioned 'God Only Knows', the Carveresque 'Our Song' and 'Civil War' (all from 'Civilians').
That tips it towards 2007's 'Civilians' then, but I love 'Tiny Voices' too...
On 'Civilians' there seems to be less experimentation with sound; there is a fine band in the room (musicians include Loudon Wainwright III, Bill Frisell, Greg Leisz and Van Dyke Parks), it's beautifully recorded of course, and the clutch of songs are breathtaking, elegant, profound, sophisticated yet compassionate; penned by a true everyman with a keen eye for mundanities and miracles.
I could write a page or two on 'Our Song' but will spare you as TT got there first.
Suffice it to say that it might well be the wisest, most emotionally focussed popular song that I know.
What do you think?


  1. Ah, what a beautifuly penned tribute to a fine poet/songwriter. I think Joe might be a difficult sell to the masses, which is a shame. He certainly follows his own flaky drummer. An "ambience of humanity"... I'm sure Joe would appreciate that comment as I do. You get the feeling that none of his characters are beyond redemption, no matter how lost, angry or broken they may be. As JH's liner notes for Civilians begins, "The life you save, may be your own." I won't get started again gushing on about Our Song, except to say I just listened to the clip you posted, and as always, I'm in awe of the thing. Also, I hadn't examined the lyric to God Only Knows closely 'til now. Another finely crafted and thoughtful piece of poetry...

  2. He's a true artist; integrity to the max.
    There are some interesting Youtube clips of him and Lisa Hannigan.
    When we met last summer she was about to tour Japan with him; I sensed a crush...