Joe Henry's Scar (2001) and Tiny Voices (2003) are two of my favorite records from the last 10 years. So I'll be the first to admit that I might be approaching his new release with unreasonably high expectations.
Civilians is no disappointment. I'm still marinating in it, patiently absorbing it and perversely enjoying every awkward second of my hunger and ignorance. Henry is a brilliant and unique producer, valedictorian of the Daniel Lanois School of Magnificent Multi-layered Murk.
With Civilians, Henry stakes out a starker route. Stripping down his usual layered sound, he allows his dark lyrical abstractions to conjure clouds. "Our Song" perfectly sums up his gift of the abstract metaphor with a parable about spotting Willie Mays shopping for garage door springs at Home Depot, observing how even "the greatest center fielder of all time" is just like the rest of us. We all need "something to slow a heavy door, something to help us raise one up." In the song's long-view, fuzzy-focus chorus, Henry alludes to the state of the nation, lamenting, "This was my country/This was my song/Somewhere in the middle there/It started badly and it's ending wrong."
Bringing to mind Tom Waits' bluesy Heart Attack And Vine era, Civilians hits the ground skulking and slouches doggedly towards the ever-unattainable resolution of heartsick contradictions. Henry continually carves out poetic new twists on the same old bittersweet conclusions. Grade: B