“Let the record show, please, that I arrived here promptly, under my own steam, and that I formally declare the handcuffs to be excessive.” So says Joe Henry in the liner notes of his new album Civilians. Now on his 10th record, his second for Anti, Henry says, “But what I want is obvious to a blind man…My work is akin to shoveling out a fireplace: If I do it well, the next fire will have more air to breathe. And the fire next time is always the thing.” At 46 years old, Henry sounds like a man still looking up ahead, with a long way to go.
And yet the title track introduces the album differently: shuffling in like a doped-up lounge lizard, trying to swing, a little off the beat, while Henry channels a Nighthawks at the Diner-era Tom Waits. But this is an act: “Pray for you!/Pray for me!/Sing it like a song!” Henry calls out over the chorus, and he could just as easily be drunk in the gutter as preaching from the pulpit. “Life is short/But by the grace of God, the night is long!” These are Joe Henry’s modern times, in a world of thieves and whores, civil war, and a Home Depot haunted by the ghost of Willie Mays. In Civilians’ bleakest moments, he sounds almost desperately lost: “Parker’s Mood” finds him hung over in an empty room, looking for a missing sock and shoe while the TV flickers.
“I’m a big believer in the places that experience takes you,” said Henry in a recent interview with the New York Daily News. “Some of my favorite Duke Ellington recordings were made toward the end of his life. And I’m interested in what Dylan has to say now, at his age.” Dylan’s late period sound, particularly, is a close cousin to Civilians: There is the same mix of weariness and fear, the same tested faith and bracing resolve, the same sense that a long road traveled has brought the truth no closer. “If you fear the angels above while you sleep/Then I’ll be the blood you paint on your door,” he sings on “Time is a Lion,” sounding like a man who’s long since learned his fate and made the best of it. And like Dylan, Henry seems to inhabit an older music that never actually existed, or one that keeps being forgotten and relearned, over and over. “Our Song” is the album’s magnificent centerpiece; it is absolutely on par with Dylan’s “Working Man’s Blues #2” around which his Modern Times similarly turns. The song hums like a living ghost, with a sound that seems to call out from a simpler time, and yet is wielded in the hands of the singer like the whip for his tired horse. “This was my country,” sings Henry, “This was my song/Somewhere in the middle there/Though it started badly/And it’s ending wrong.”
Quietly but unmistakably, there is a political undercurrent that weaves in and out of Civilians. But to call the album in any way “political” would cheapen the gracious soul from which it comes. When Henry sings, “We nail a sign above the door/God bless our little civil war,” he’s expressing a personal sentiment first, a political one second. The album, after all, is called Civilians—it is a people’s story, and on songs like “Love is Enough,” Henry seems to find a measure of hope in being lost in a city full of drifters, insomniacs, and wanderers. And it is telling that he chose a John Cohen photograph for the album’s beautiful cover; Cohen famously snapped pictures of a wide range of characters, from Dylan, Jack Kerouac, and Woody Guthrie, to the people of the Peruvian Andes.
With 12 songs in just under an hour, Civilians feels over-long at times; the slow pace of some songs occasionally dulls their sincerity. But even in its rare maudlin and melodramatic moments, the album is saved its many precise, stainless sounds: Henry’s compassionate, reverb-shaken voice, Bill Frisell’s excellent fretwork, a bewitched pump organ, a snare hit that always echoes a bit too long. In what has turned into a very special year for music, Civilians feels like the necessary epilogue, an important letter that still needs to be delivered. “Now you spit in your hands/And haul on the rope/And you fill up my cup with the worst kind of hope,” Henry sings on “Scare Me To Death.” There are no answers here, but there is faith—sometimes in God, but more often in civilians, in their stories, and their ghosts.