CD Review of Blood from Stars by Joe Henry
Joe Henry: Blood from Stars
Recommended if you like
Ornette Coleman, Tom Waits,
Bruce Cockburn
Label
Anti-
Joe Henry:
Blood from Stars

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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W
hen you’ve been around as long, and released as many stellar albums, as Joe Henry, there comes a time when even the smartest writer runs out of intelligent superlatives to describe the music, and is simply left sputtering like a nincompoop to anyone who will listen, making ridiculous hand gestures, doing interpretive dances, and resorting to Tourette’s-like bursts of profanity to somehow convey the excellence of the artist’s latest work.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, this writer is decidedly not the smartest, so although you may read smartly persuasive, beautifully written reviews of Joe Henry’s latest album elsewhere, I can think of no better way of leading off my write-up than to simply tell you this: Blood from Stars is a fucking masterpiece.

Stars picks up, loosely speaking, where Henry’s last album, 2007’s Civilians, left off – which is, loosely speaking, at the intersection of dark singer/songwriter rock, Gothic folk, and damaged free jazz, although that comes nowhere near describing the twisty, smoke-filled aesthetic of the music Henry has made this century; nor does it address the many ways Henry has altered his sound this time around, making a 180-degree turn from the sparse, sepia-toned soundscapes of Civilians and thickening his arrangements with scores of assorted noise – from cacophonous, reverb-laden drums to warped, snaky brass to webs of ambient sound that drape themselves like so much dust-covered lace over the whole affair.

Henry’s sound is thicker here, yes. But at the same time, Blood from Stars is an album of vast sonic expanses, occasionally almost Lanois-ish in the way it uses distance to draw the listener into a strange, dusky world filled with men and women who sigh, eyes widened, at the mounting evidence that our society’s gone off plumb, innocence is lost, and hope is gone – but who persist in belief anyway, despite the crimes we commit against ourselves and one another, despite our seeming inability to connect the constantly shifting dots between our treacherous hearts. Henry has always excelled at describing the tender violence of love, and he extends his streak here, repeatedly holding his skin to the bittersweet spark between man and woman, comfort and rage, wanderlust and domesticity. It’s an outlook perhaps best summed up by the album’s fourth track, a lovely ballad laced with Spanish guitar titled "This Is My Favorite Cage."

After all this fumbling for a way to describe the music, it perhaps comes as no surprise that Stars – like quite a lot of Henry’s work – is relatively demanding stuff. It’s an album that demands (and rewards) patience and attentive listening; in fact, the less you really listen while it’s on, the more it’ll sound like a vaguely menacing squall. These are songs that don’t beg to be held, but will open, slowly and gracefully, to listeners who don’t wait for the invitation. They are a gift that will be unseen or misunderstood by many, but whose beauty burns no less brightly for the lack of discovery. If you love music, don’t let this one pass you by.

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