album review::Joe Henry:Civilians

Anti Records recently released Joe Henry’s new album Civilians and it includes special guests Bill Frisell and Van Dyke Parks. I’ve always thought Joe Henry was one of those greats that somehow got lost in the cracks. My favorite album of his has always been Trampoline, which was released back in 1996. Joe just has a gift for words and more importantly for laying out these scenes where the language and phrasing is so vivid that one can’t help, but get caught up in the emotional overtones of the song. Most of the songs came to Joe back last fall, living on the outskirts of Los Angeles in a presidential widow’s former house, with her ghost present. Opener “Civilians” almost feels like it should be blaring from a saloon some place where there is a player piano playing the tune of “life is short, but by the grace of God, the night is long.” Having said that, it is of note that God seems to be present all throughout the record, and according to Joe this is the God of Wilde, Shakespeare, Moliere, and Buster Keaton, not the God of his Methodist upbringing. “Civil War” illustrates life’s fickle nature with lines like “every truth carries blame, and every lie reveals some shame,” and how even the strongest of relationships go through tests. The track that really touches me the most is “Our Song” which saunters in with light drums, a sparse piano, and a Willie Mays’ sighting,landing in Civilians’ most effecting chorus. Like much of Joe’s material, Civilians holds up a high standard of strong songwriting, and subject matter that gives the music an almost theatrical feel, with the characters forced to confront their own existential crisis.

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