For the past decade, Joe Henry has led a double life, his own releases tending to be somewhat overshadowed by his production work on other artists' albums, which has helped revitalise the careers of American roots legends such as Allen Toussaint, Bettye LaVette and Solomon Burke.
For his own 12th album, Henry has turned his attention to the blues, but managed to avoid most of the common clichés which hang around the genre like cheap perfume. There's nothing here about Chicago, or the Mississippi delta, or packing your leaving trunk and going off to sell your soul to the devil down at the crossroads. Instead, that sense of discomfiture with one's lot is expressed in images which, though newly minted, are of the kind that flourished in old folk and blues songs. "I'm going to dig my well from the bottom to the top," he sings in "Bellwether", "I'm going to change my name until it rings a bell" – both brilliantly evoking the acute disconnection with the way things are.
Likewise, there's no trace either of the standard 12-bar format. Instead, the album opens with a haunting piano prelude, after which Henry simply presents his musicians with the material and lets them arrive at the songs' natural forms. And since his musicians include the likes of master guitarist Marc Ribot, legendary session bassist David Piltch and Jay Bellerose, perhaps the most inventively expressive drummer working today, those forms are both instinctive and ingenious. "Channel" seems to solidify from a cloud of instrumental hints, in the manner of a Daniel Lanois production, while Bellerose alone brings "Death to the Storm" alive through terrifying, earth-shaking drum rolls like rolling thunder.
"The Man I Keep Hid" is full of rich instrumental flourishes – salty trumpet, asthmatic organ and trilling guitar – building to Levon Henry's sax solo, as Henry describes his hidden self in racked poetic allusions: "He's raised my face like a pirate's flag, a phantom nation's tattered rag". "All Blues Hail Mary" is another song infused with the black magic of the blues, as if it were a sentence rather than a style, its judgement meted out to a funereal tread of creepy ambient noises and a resigned guitar melody, executed finally in a scrabbled collage of found sounds. And on "This Is My Favourite Cage", Henry's bluesy, Tom Waits-style Sprechstimme is hemmed in by instruments that sound like they're trying to metamorphose: a bowed banjo, and a tack piano that sounds like a zither. It's a fascinating, sometimes harrowing journey to a dark and surprisingly foreign place, which, after years of cosy familiarity, somehow manages to make the blues seem strange again.
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