I admit I'm not all that well versed in the work of Joe Henry. The singer-songwriter and record producer started out in the world of alt-country, which as most people who know me well can attest to, is far from my favorite genre in the world. But starting in the mid 1990s he has been changing his style drastically, taking influences from jazz and blues, finally culminating in his 2009 album Blood From Stars, a dark love letter to the blues that was distintly Waitsian in tone. That I would compare Henry to Tom Waits (one of my musical heroes whose new album, Bad As Me comes out on October 22nd) is a huge compliment. Henry isn't quite the poet that Waits is, but then again neither is anyone else in the music world. Henry is an accomplished songwriter, and Blood From Stars has since become one of my favorite albums. It's a haunting, bruising creature: dark and minor; a gathering of storm clouds that broke into thunder. Reviewers hailed it as the album that he'd been leading up to for his entire career, and while it may have been the only album of his that I'd heard, it felt like a magnum opus. Something about it seemed like the sort of album that a musician works their entire life to forge; a flawless meeting of the songwriter and composer in Henry. I highly recommend buying it.
The question remains, though: how do you follow up what has been described as a career-defining album? When I heard that Henry was releasing a new album, I knew I had to find out how it compared. Intentional or not, Reverie does very much seem like a follow up to Blood From Stars, though as the title suggests, it is on a much more hopeful note than that album did. It is the light at the end of Blood From Stars's dark tunnel. It retains the bluesy atmosphere, though the arrangements are smaller and less foreboding, and it carries less of the heavy jazz influences that Stars did. I'm glad to say that he chose to keep the fantastic drums and percussion that his last album had, and his arrangements have the same snaking, layered quality. And Reverie isn't without it's dark moments, with tracks such as "Sticks & Stones" and the New-Orleans-piano-tinged "Strung". But where Blood From Stars was full of bitter, bruising crescendos and thundering drums, Reverie has moments of surprising tenderness, such as the beautiful solo piece "Tomorrow Is October". Stars was a beautful album, but it was a rough kind of beauty; the sad moments of this album come from a different, later stage of grief. There are a lot of transitions from major to minor that add a gorgeous third dimension to the songs.
But what I love most here is the same thing that made me fall for Blood From Stars: Henry's sound is unpolished, raw, and gloriously imperfect; the antithesis of the overproduced plasticness that plagues much modern music. All that gloss might seem nice on paper, but it sucks out the soul of the music, and makes it seem fake and shallow. A song can't get by on nothing but a nice voice and some clever rhymes; the arrangements and style have more to do with it than anything. Why do you think people like Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, who weren't good singers by any conventional standards, become so revered? Because they were real. They weren't trying to impress anybody; their music came from a sort of higher emotional calling. That's the mark of a true musician. Imperfection is a beautiful thing when used correctly, and Henry is one of this era's true masters of artful imperfection, along with artists such as Tom Waits and The Black Keys.
Is this album as good as Blood From Stars? It's hard to say. They're so similar, and yet so different. In the end, if either album wins out it'll be by a very small margin. For me, I suppose that Stars has the edge, but I certainly can't speak for everyone. You'll have to decide for yourself, if only to hear two great examples of what a true master can do. Grade: A