Over the last 30 years Joe Henry has simultaneously worked – hard – as a masterful, empathic producer creating warm and rustic song settings for a diverse range of artists and he’s been chasing his own muse through sensitive, thoughtful and exploratory singer/songwriter albums. Thrum, his latest, features a clever trick – well a few actually. It’s always a great trick to have depth to the material and Henry provides the goods, song-wise, and is in fine voice. But here his cast of regular players (that sublime rhythm section of David Piltch on upright and electric bass and Jay Bellerose painting rhythmic soundscapes across drums and percussion, joined by Patrick Warren on all kinds of piano-based instruments and Levon Henry on the reeds) take an improvisatory approach to backing the material.
So we have the songs – great songs – Dylanesque at times, and then this floating waft of music – it’s as if T-Bone Burnett has travelled back in time to re-capture your favourite Van Morrison album.
Opener, Climb, begins with a gentle, circular guitar motif and softly beneath it we hear the saxophone as Henry tells a Billy The Kid tale. From there, Believer, rides in on a nod of bass, the soft percussion like jangling spurs. Dark Is Light Enough is where we start to hear the full effects of the production wizardry – Bellerose is like a John Bonham-meets-Jim White force of nature here, colouring, splaying, spraying, but providing a firm rhythm on which the song sits. These recordings, captured live to tape, make you feel the room and feel as if you’re in the room, damn-near inside the song, carried away on a press-roll, brought back in with tidal swells of the piano.
There’s a Tom Waits-ian funeral march to many of the songs – Blood Of The Forgotten Song perhaps in particular, with lyrical lines framed by the tender caress of the music, “Our future writ out on the walls of the past/In the blood of the forgotten song”, a lilting glide of piano and strings sitting just underneath.
World of This Room is like a soundtrack in and of itself – the score to a short film not yet made; containing the narrative within the lyrics and the moods and tones in the shift of the instrumental backing. It’s here you realise this is an album of mini-epics; standalone songs huddling proudly – strongly – together. Extra strength gathered as a result.
There’s a charm and warmth even as the dirge-like passages crawl along, a softness and sadness to it all – in terms of tone. The secret strength, always, is the production. An album for music-nerds on that level, but inside these recordings sit heartfelt, wise, careful and lovely songs.
The soft shuffle of brushes beneath yet another twist on the familiar-feeling acoustic guitar pattern issues in Quicksilver. Henry’s voice is at its best on this song, there’s yearning and hope these songs contain so much, to even try to unpack them is to somewhat miss the point. You’re supposed to stand there – or sit – and let this music wash over you. You perhaps don’t quite even need to be told that, it’s going to do that anyway, it’ll find it’s way into and over and all around you.
River Floor has elements you’ve found before in songs by Nick Cave and Elvis Costello, Waits again, Springsteen and Dylan – maybe even Robyn Hitchcock. But from those threads Henry crafts something that is his and his alone.
I’ve loved so many Joe Henry albums – ones with him at the helm as either the singer and songwriter or creating the mood and pushing the buttons behind a bigger star. But I’ve never loved one more than this.