Songwriter Joe Henry has recorded five albums in the 21st century; he’s also become a Grammy-winning producer. These more recent records (of 12) offer a mature view of an artist at his most musically ambitious and lyrically cagey. Reverie, as its title implies, contains 14 songs that seemingly center on the concept of time: the random glinting of memory as it perceives love, loss, spirituality, history, and culture refracted through the gaze of the human heart. Musically, it feels like the loosest album Henry’s ever recorded; its production techniques are organic, live sessions were cut in his home studio with the windows open, allowing the sounds of everyday life--barking dogs, mothers calling children, cars and trucks-- to pour through, making them part and parcel of the album's fabric. Henry's lyrics and melodies do, however, contrarily reveal an exacting craftsman. He and his guitar are accompanied by longtime associates, drummer Jay Bellerose, pianist Keefus Ciancia, and bassist David Piltch, with cameos by Patrick Warren, Marc Ribot, Jean McLain, and Lisa Hannigan. His lyrics -- scattershot, mercurial expressions of memory -- are caught in exacting rhymes that reflect on the power, delight, and torment of desire (he admits as much at the end of his liner essay). The musical forms are more rhythmically inventive and slippery; they serve his ephemeral, evocative lyrics by opening them up to time’s uncageable nature. On the opener, “Heaven’s Escape (Henry Fonda on the Bank of America),” Prohibition-era pop meets Billy Strayhorn's song-like melodic sensibility. The gospel piano and military snare on “Odetta” come out of the church and enter the bone, with Ciancia’s piano carrying Henry's weary, longing lyric and McLain's soaring vocal on the chorus. “After the War,” with its buzzing acoustic guitar, Bellerose's shimmering gongs, and Ciancia’s economic piano, is where Henry lends an elusive melodic sensibility to fluid rhythmic invention. McLain’s voice introduces the cabaret blues “Sticks and Stones” before Henry's strutting acoustic guitar counters with a gutbucket 4/4 tango and Bellerose's stellar drum break amid the changes. “Grand Street” is a gauzy darkness-meets-dawn waltz, with Ciancia’s piano subtly accenting shifts in the narrative. “Tomorrow Is October,” with a flamenco-tinged guitar, is a nearly mournful tome to acceptance -- desire is never absent. “Deathbed Version (After Billy the Kid)” is informed by country-blues. Henry presents his subject as physically present; as an historic ghost, while lyric repetition makes the narrative a blurred question mark. “Room at Arles,” a lament for Vic Chesnutt, is not only fitting, but beautiful. ”Eyes Out for You” is a nomad’s love song, disguised as a midtempo waltz; its protagonist desires to leave the boundaries of country and fixed notions of self behind, to more fully embrace his life and his beloved. “Unspeakable,” kissed by folk and country, moves beyond them to caress gospel and parlor music in a shuffle; lyrically, it’s so passionate and dangerous, it needed to be contained in identifiable genre vernaculars. “The World and All I Know,” with guitar and pump organ, embodies in muted tones an awed bewilderment which whispers the album to its close. Even as desire is a motivating force for all that is creative and risky, and time, an ever escaping spirit that nonetheless looks back for information, Henry trudges their paths fearlessly on Reverie. In doing so, he makes connections between disciplines -- musical, literary, visual -- that serve to further define Americana not as a musical genre, but as an expansive cultural enigma.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek