Joe Henry is one of those musical chameleons you may have heard before and yet never put a face to the music. I’d heard the occasional individual song of his prior to 2007, when I got my first wholesale introduction to his music while watching the film Knocked Up. His soundtrack to that film, with Loudon Wainwright III, was titled Strange Weirdos, and the album’s songs were memorably featured in the film in instrumental form, allowing Henry’s strong skills in arrangement and production to shine in an unobtrusive way.
His eleventh proper album, Blood From Stars, finds Henry setting out in a completely different direction. Known for his evolving sound (often merging elements of jazz, folk and alt-country), Henry has long been highly regarded for his willingness to drive forward and experiment. Blood From Stars is his first album of mostly blues material, written, produced and arranged as an album-length song-suite complete with an introduction and coda which tie the varying musical elements together as a whole. Such a dramatic sound shift shows Henry sounding much more like Tom Waits, if not always in vocal form at least in the varied instrumentations which form the album’s overall style.
This is most notable following the album’s prelude, as we enter the bluesy jazz-hall sound of “The Man I Keep Hid,” with its multi-layered sound-streams. The vocals don’t have the affected growl of Waits, but taken as a whole, the sound’s aural depth is easily reminiscent of the likes of much of Closing Time and other seventies-era albums by the legendary artist. But Henry isn’t aping anyone. He builds on that sound, using it as an enticement to convince us to follow him deeper into the album. From there we get more jazz and blues influences, and even a touch of Creole influence on “Death To The Storm.”
The album, however, doesn’t lend itself well to single-song listening. These pieces were clearly individually crafted to serve as part of the whole. As such, Blood From Stars lends itself nicely to headphone listening. Through repeated listens the layers peel away to show how complicated and varied his compositions truly are, and the production values are as good as I’ve heard in a long while.
And while none of this is mainstream, neither is the label releasing it. ANTI-, a sister label to Epitaph, has always served as a home to musicians willing to experiment and push the boundaries of what great music can be. It is therefore appropriate that Joe Henry’s Blood From Stars is a rewarding listening experience which pays off in spades when given the chance to simmer in your mind over the long term. This is the perfect summer album for lovers of meaningful music who want more than just a pop melody and easy-to-swallow hooks, the kind of album which often slips under the radar only to pop up on end-of-year “Best Of” lists.