Joe Henry: This Time He’s Not Coming Down
It’s a recurring dream, one you’ve had so many times that you no longer think of it as a dream; when it plays in your head, you feel like you’re watching a favorite old movie. It’s a movie of you and your former love, and you’ve seen it so many times that every scene, every cut, every rhythm and every detail is expected, anticipated, longed for…and you get so caught up in that familiar ache, that flood of emotion, you actually forget each time the dream/movie starts that it ends with the cataclysmic shock of a plane crash at the air show you and your love are attending. It’s like watching the Zapruder film in slow motion, and as each frame crawls by, you can’t think of anything but how beautiful Jackie is, until…
The soundtrack to this movie is a song from the latest Joe Henry record, Trampoline. Okay, so the song title “Ohio Air Show Plane Crash” is a bit of a giveaway, but the fact is that I get so drawn in by the loping rhythms, the building up of layers of sound as the song intensifies, I get completely sucked in by the meticulous construction of the dreamy groove, which stretches out into a profound representation of the sound of a heart lost in longing. Moving, evocative songcraft is something I’ve learned to expect from Henry, but this all-powerful groove is something new. It turns out this is Henry’s new modus operandi.
“I’ve grown less interested in my own limitations as an acoustic guitar-playing songwriter,” Henry says in his characteristic self-effacing tone. “I’m writing songs to drum loops rather than picking them out on the guitar. It’s liberating, as a singer and a lyricist, when vocal phrasing doesn’t have to articulate the rhythm. You can stop singing and the rhythm keeps going.”
But the rhythms here go far beyond a basic groove, fleshing out some remarkably hard-edged funk; as such, it comes as no surprise that Carla Azar, one of the principal players on the record, made her bones drumming behind Wendy & Lisa. And what really extends the groove is the record’s use of unconventional sounds, from the zither that opens the record to the gorgeous pedal steel on the closing song — each distinctively bent, often through the process of looping, to serve the song. Throughout the record you’ll hear strings, a trombone, harshly metallic drum sounds, an operatic descant, and some ripping guitar (courtesy of Helmet’s Page Hamilton). It’s a wild ride, and not remotely what you’d expect from an artist whose last two records owed much of their well-grounded roots/country sound to the extensive use of the Jayhawks as a backing band.
“I’m not a purist in any way,” Henry says. “Any sound is fair game, anything that can be made musical, made engaging. These days I work more like a collage artist, adding different elements, taking them away again….It’s building a better song. I have no use for music that’s delicate or fragile, music that you have to protect or explain. That kind of music is like fragile dishware — it just doesn’t age very well.”
His literate, imagistic songs have stood on their own since his first recordings. 1989’s Murder of Crows and 1990’s Shuffletown, both on A&M, had the benefit of the involvement of top-shelf player-producers: Anton Fier producing a cast of studio vets on the first, T Bone Burnett leading a more homey, eclectic gang on the second. Both reveal an obviously talented songwriter casting around in search of a more defined personal musical style, classic examples of the talented but tiny fish lost in the ocean of major-label projects.
But with Short Man’s Room, Henry’s 1992 release on Mammoth, he hit a distinctive groove, in part because he had begun working with an up-and-coming young band known as the Jayhawks. “After I was dropped by A&M, it was kind of refreshing to be starting over,” he recalls. “I had met the Jayhawks before, and we all shared a vague understanding of what each other were up to musically, so we decided to pool our resources and play shows together.” The Jayhawks would open the shows with their own set, then remain onstage to back Henry as he did his songs.
He came to like the dynamic. “I would have these brooding, claustrophobic songs, but their delivery was more like three-chord rock, all loose and splashy and great. So I recruited them to be my band for the next record, and built it around their sound.” They recorded some demos over the course of a weekend in the empty offices of the Rykodisc label; Mammoth heard the tapes and issued them just as they were. “The beginning of a relationship I’ve since bastardized in any number of ways,” smiles Henry.
The follow-up, 1993’s Kindness of the World , also on Mammoth, was less fully realized. It was designed along similar lines but had different players being shuffled in and out; there was no palpable vibe of musicians inhabiting the material as on the previous record. Henry began to move away from the idea of recording live tracks in the studio.
“It’s not that I don’t have a reverence for that magical idea, the idea of a song developing from the energy of five or six players in a room, but it’s not the only way to get work done,” he explained. “A song recorded that way has a tendency to reduce itself to the lowest risk factor at each pass. Making records like that is like doing live theater; I’d rather make a movie.”
Enter producer Patrick McCarthy, known for his work with R.E.M., Patti Smith and Counting Crows. Originally signed on as an engineer, he slipped into the role of producer as he nudged Henry toward a new way of creating songs, compelling him to set up his own studio in his garage and experiment with new sounds, and to write songs to drum loops rather than to an acoustic guitar. “Plane Crash”, one of the first songs completed for the record, became a model for much of what followed.
“The original nucleus of that song isn’t even a part of the record anymore. I didn’t know how it was going to work, just these same chords over and over for seven minutes. Then other parts were added on, more guitars, more percussion, and it became this bubbling, rolling thing. When I heard how good that whole process made it sound, I just sent the rest of the band home for the day — I had found a new way to make records. And it worked with the way the story within the song unfolds, one measured piece at a time, with this small, personal event in the foreground and this huge, tragic crash relegated to a backdrop.” Cinematic, you might say.
As is “Flower Girl”, a grim little vignette of a prospecting expedition gone very wrong. It reads like an old folk song, a tale you might expect to be told to the accompaniment of a fiddle and mandolin. Indeed, Henry confirms that “we cut a live version of it, a country version, but I wasn’t satisfied. So Pat instinctively worked in the pump organ, the rattle drum for texture, and that vocal…” The song features the disembodied operatic voice of soloist Miranda Dade-Lurie. “It’s so ghostly, so detached — just completely appropriate to the song.”
Appropriate, yes — and deeply affecting. Perhaps also confusing to an unsuspecting or less adventurous listener, as are funky drums and corrosive guitars. These aren’t the kinds of sounds permeating your Americana-approved radio playlists. Individuals who relished the Jayhawks collaboration may not follow Henry down this path. “I know,” he says. “It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve heard that. Various people in my camp have suggested that it was foolish of me to jump off the bandwagon just as it gained corporate sponsorship.”
But if Henry has forgone his opportunity to dominate a radio chart, he has gained something far greater. He is actively pushing his music’s limits, taking real chances, opening up the boundaries of not only what people hear in his records, but the way those records get made. Short-sighted speculators and profiteers hope to cash in on the popularity of a musical “movement” by narrowing its scope; true artists are busy creating new forms beyond a movement’s apparent limitations.
His next move may range even farther still: Henry would like to score music for films. He has had songs appear on soundtracks here and there, most recently in Feeling Minnesota. “I like the role that music plays in a movie,” he says. “It may be a song, or a fragment of a song, or just noise, doing whatever it needs to do to work within the scene. Films can make you think of music in a completely different way.”
So can Joe Henry.