I’ve always found it easier to write about what’s gone wrong on an album than try to pinpoint what’s gone right. So, imagine my chagrin when Joe Henry, the idiosyncratic musician perhaps best known for his work with the Jayhawks, delivers his latest offering, on which (oh horror of horrors!) I like every single track.
You read that right.
I enjoyed Civilians from beginning to end, from the moody swing of the opening title track (“life is short, but by the grace of god, the night is long”) to the echo-drenched loveliness of the last, “God Only Knows.” Needless to say, this doesn’t happen often.
So, hat’s off to you Mr. Henry. You’ve put together an album that reminds me of all my favorite short story collections – where each piece dazzles on its own, but it is the entire work that reveals the true genius of the creator.
And dazzle these songs do. There’s the gorgeous, bittersweet “Civil War,” where the singer muses that “every truth carries blame, every lie reveals some shame,” layered over a lush instrumental background. There’s the slow heartbreak of a soldier’s search for his sweetheart in “Wave” — when he comes to the conclusion that “life is cruel to the weak and sober,” Henry’s voice drips with weary resignation. There’s the sweetly mellow “I Will Write My Book,” a song whose classic piano arrangement would sound at home on any album with the words “American” and “songbook” in its name. There’s the insistently bluesy “Time Is a Lion,” a catchy and cool rumination on the nature of time (“you can’t see the challenges, I suppose, but time is a dare, and I’m trying too”). Great songs, all. But, falling right in the middle of Civilians, is “the hub of the wheel,” as Henry described it: the simultaneously epic and intimate “Our Song.” In it, the singer imagines having a run-in with baseball legend Willie Mays in a Home Depot, and being witness to an emotional confessional of sorts — “This was my country, this frightful and this angry land/but it’s my right if the worst of it might still, somehow, make me a better man.” Over beautiful, movie-soundtrack strings, Henry comes about as close to making a political statement as he does anywhere on the album, singing about how Mays, “stooped by the burden of endless dreams” comes to stand proudly upright. Given the melancholy of the song thus far, it’s a surprising moment, but no less affecting. “Our Song” sees a man (and maybe a country?) that is flawed, but inevitably, strong.
There are a lot of little moments I’m leaving out, of course. The way Henry describes saints with “their yellow nails curled back to scratch the phantom ache” in “Parker’s Mood.” The slight break in his voice on “You Scare Me to Death” when he sings “You fill up my cup with the worst kind of hope.” Even a wry Dr. Spock reference in “You Can’t Fail Me Now.” One listen is not enough.
As Joe Henry once said, “As a writer, you can look inward, which is a finite space. Or you can look outward, at the world, which is infinite.” Well, I would just like to say thank you, Mr. Henry. Thank you for looking at this infinite world and making such an astoundingly beautiful album.
It’s true. I liked every single song. And, I’m betting, you will too. - Claire Orpeza