Looking for the heart in the center of any Joe Henry recording since 2001's Scar is a labyrinthine exercise that ultimately leads to befuddlement, bemusement, and sometimes, outright frustration. Perhaps that is because it's on display at every moment. So big, so bruised, and papered with tattered words, phrases, and sad but true jokes that echo from a thousand haunted fire escapes and empty rooms where the walls are two-toned from furniture being moved out of them. It doesn't remotely resemble that red pillowed thing most musical romantics would consider when seeking something uniform and readily on display in a small, shiny, or even shattered case. Civilians has as many stories attached as any record Henry's written, but they're so finely crafted now that the singer almost disappears in their flickering appearances on the wall of the mind of the listener. It could be anyone in them, but you know them; that's what you do know. You have no real idea who the songwriter is, which means he's done his job perfectly. The first clues are on the cover and the inside sleeve, but that comes in a minute.
First there's the practical stuff: the band on this date is essentially the same one that Henry and Loudon Wainwright used on Wainwright's Strange Weirdos album (that Henry collaborated on and acted and co-produced) that ended up, in its own skewed way, becoming the best soundtrack of 2007 for the film Knocked Up. The recruited are Bill Frisell, Patrick Warren, David Piltch, Greg Leisz and Jay Bellerose (other than Warren, the rest were a quartet who toured in support of Frisell's Good Dog, Happy Man album). Wainwright is here on backing vocals, and there are guests including Van Dyke Parks and Chris Hickey. The Section, a string quartet, appears on "Our Song." On the surface, this record is the other side of 2003's wonderfully surreal Tiny Voices, and a world away from 2001's hunted Scar where Ornette Coleman made his presence felt, known, and in his way informed with his spirit all the songs on the album, though he only really appeared on one. The fragmented, cibachrome soundscapes on Tiny Voices have been replaced by a band playing it (mostly) straight. They lay down Henry's tunes with the kind of subtlety, an underlying net that is required when walking this far out on the observational ledge, but since these are in the first person that's a sleight of hand dodge. The horns and other aspects of the Tiny Voices and Scar mosaics are completely absent, put in a closet for now in favor of something more seemingly organic. That said, those longing for a return to the more "rootsy" sounds of far earlier Henry records aren't getting that either. What this band plays can't be called rock or jazz or folk or pop or anything at all that falls inside the lines; it's music. And that's quite a thing. The mostly relaxed, snaky noise this group does make, accessible as it is, is every bit as lush and warm as its predecessors only in reverse. It's every bit the warm yet torn coat one needs to wear while standing alone in a cold wind without the sunshine for reassurance.
And then there are the songs. They have many wise-acre wisdoms to impart, direct experiences from the front of walking the streets and alleys in the neighborhood that we all live in these days, known as Tension Heights. There is a repeat performance here of sorts, Henry recorded his own version of "You Can't Fail Me Now," the finest moment from Wainwright's Strange Weirdos. The difference is subtle but there: Henry's version feels more like a declaration; not of fear exactly, but hoping for an escape from the feeling, whereas Wainwright's was one of romantic surrender and desperate acceptance. Then there's "Parker's Mood," the most beautiful song on an album full of them. Named for one of Charles "Yardbird" Parker's most famous tunes (yeah, Henry's got cojones), it's either the story of a spirit falling out of a body or of leaving its legacy, there are clues here as to the evening of the saxophonist's demise as a result of hard, fast living, but there are also truths that what was left when he died was bigger than he ever imagined. Somehow in the last moment, perhaps we know that; perhaps not. The song is a mystery wrapped in acoustic guitars, standup bass, drums and that spectral Weissenborn guitar of Leisz's. The military dirge waltz that commences "Scare Me to Death," with Frisell's electric guitar, Leisz's mandolin and the snare, bass drum, and tambourine offers Henry just enough to sing a kind of blues that comes after waking one morning, looking across the kitchen table, and admitting every fault in the face of true intimacy. Frisell's uncanny ability to underline every line with exactly the right note brings the fear home. One wishes this stage of the game never arrived, but perhaps it was here all along. "Our Song" follows it. It's one of the greatest political songs written in the last 30 years and it doesn't feel like one. If one recognizes the people and places in the song, with Bellerose's rim shot snare softly keeping time with swirling, elegiac strings, a simply chorded piano, and that beautiful, big, woody double bass, all singing with one another behind Henry, who knows that Willie Mays was the 21st century's Walt Whitman -- or perhaps Edwin Denby -- was the embodiment of everything we once believed about this strange place we live in. According to Henry's protagonist who prophesies on the back side of the mountain: "Though it started badly and it's ending wrong/This was my country/This frightful and this angry land/But it's my right if the worst of it might/Still make me a better man..." The bottom line in these songs is simple: in dark times we still need to believe in something, even if it's in the goodness of our own last breath. God makes numerous appearances here, but mostly as one of the gang who is as guilty as all the rest but has more cards up his sleeve.
Speaking of sleeves, the one on Civilians is quite something. It is illustrated with photographs by John Cohen, musicologist, historian, unheralded chronicler of the lost American soul, and banjo picker for the New Lost City Ramblers. There are two things that are very telling: the first is on the back cover: it's one of the artist Red Grooms hustling across Third Avenue in New York with a canvas -- blank on the side we can see -- in a wheelbarrow. Nearly smack dab in the middle of the booklet is another of the artist Bob Thompson teetering above his peers at Grooms' Delancey Street Museum (his studio), beholding a blazing light fixture. It most likely occurred at the staging of one of Grooms' great "happenings" (while Andy Warhol was still doing shop windows). These gatherings were great theater, and exhibits where art was alive and breathing, not observed. They were participatory events; acknowledgements of America's great tragic and comedic history inside a beat studio. Grooms loved vaudeville, the Keystone Cops, the circus and carnivals, and they all had a place at his studio gatherings. He was also a born Southerner who emigrated to New York. Henry is a born Southerner, and he has more in common with Grooms' expansive and welcoming vision of what it was that allowed us to poke fun at ourselves in order to blunt the edge of death and hatred. It's also a look at what is with a sly, well-hidden tear inside the laughter. He owes Grooms and Robert Frank and a whole slew of others, and he's acknowledging that here, and in this art; which is the kind we can get inside of and move around in, and try it on like a beautiful old suit from the vintage store. Nostalgia only has the place of being a mirror in both Henry's -- and Grooms -- work. Civilians is the evidence of what pop music can and should be, profound without being self conscious, elegant while wearing its seams in plain view, and full of speech both lyrically and musically that invites the listener in for a real conversation. It's not a tonic for the particularly dangerous time we find ourselves living in, it's the whole heart of it refracted in the broken mirror, it seems to tell us to beware: the more things look the same, the weirder they really are. Henry says it best on the first inside page of his booklet: "The life you save may be your own." Civilians is a naked light bulb, late-night reflection on what is impurely beautiful, profanely sacred, and beautifully treacherous.