Joe Henry has returned and his newest release Civilians may be his best yet. While Joe’s trademark songwriting features his subtly complex arrangements, the driving force of this album is really the subtext: his take on Americana.
What more but a CD cover flanked inside and outside by photographs of the late 1950s and 60s can capture the “old days” alluded to in songs like “Civilians,” “Our Song,” and “I Will Write My Book.” These are not songs of melancholy, but, rather, songs of nostalgia—but not just for nostalgia’s sake.
No. These are pieces juxtaposed against modern civilization; the voice of the songs looking for the stability of the past amidst the chaos of the present. It’s no wonder Henry mentions God in nine of the 12 tracks.
Although he mentions in the linear notes that in retrospect he noted that God appeared in many of the songs, it is difficult to not see this as a driving theme within the major pieces. Especially those with the yearning cry of his voice, backed by the multi-layered instrumentation.
Nothing his rushed; this is Joe’s left hook out of a dark alley. The piano sounds like a player-piano that most Polly’s Pies used to have in the waiting area—it has a tinny resonance, adding to the feel of way, way, back in the day.
Just as Wilco’s addition of Nils to the line up has done wonders for the overt and covert guitar playing, so is the guitar playing of Bill Frisell. Where a less experienced player, or one solely rooted in one style may have trumped the musical freedom of this collaboration, Frisell knows exactly what to play and when to play it.
David Piltch’s upright and electric bass playing may be the most underrated musician on this CD. That Henry leaves many of the pieces sparse in terms of mixing and the slower tempo pieces create implied gaps in time, Piltch is the one literally holding it all together. Sometimes it’s a single note in a bar, or a longer line that is almost inaudible. But, that is part of the joy of listening to this CD: you have to listen several times, and listen closely.
One last trope, perhaps the most imperceptible, is Henry’s ultimate comment to the entire music industry—he’s doing it his way. Released on Anti-, a three date tour, with one recently added, and absolutely no apologies; Joe Henry brings it well-refined, developed, and impeccably executed.
But, like with any Joe Henry event, he comes out in a flash, and like that, he’s gone. Rolling Stone and all the other detritus of music review use stars—typically one to five to rate an album. I use the pound sign. Joe Henry has just pounded out the best CD of 2007 and I’m not afraid to give it ####. Yeah, those at Rolling Stone fear the five-star review because that means it’s an instant classic. We should be so lucky that taste will survive ten, 15, 20 years from now.