Joe Henry has spent enough time recording and producing albums to know exactly what he wants to accomplish, and how to get right down to it. That’s exactly what he does on his tenth full-length release, Civilians. The opening title cut seems straightforward and simple, but is packed with brilliant little musical and lyrical touches that reward close listening. It’s an intimate song, complete with a small string section, and feels not so much like the beginning of a new album but the middle of one that is well underway.
That intimacy permeates Civilians, which trades the spirit of adventure and texture found on earlier Henry albums like Scar and Fuse for one of delicacy and contemplation. Its songs are layered but never cluttered, delicate yet insistent, and wistful without being dreary or ponderous.
Supporting this carefully crafted batch of songs is another strong set of lyrics that feature Henry’s idiosyncratic views on life, love, and the world around us. The overall theme of Civilians is one of hope in the face of impending darkness, and a quiet dignity in spite of our numerous flaws as human beings. God is invoked on numerous occasions, but is portrayed as slightly aloof rather than vengeful or all-loving.
In the tradition of Joe Henry songs that seem biographical without being overtly so, “Parker’s Mood” evokes the bleak final days of iconic saxophonist Charlie Parker (the song is in fact named for one of the Bird’s famous compositions). The song may or may not describe Parker’s dying thoughts on his own legacy, and only a mention of the nickname “Yardbird” provides any tangible evidence.
The centerpiece of Civilians is “Our Song,” which is that rarest of specimens in modern music – a political song that is insightful and effective precisely because it makes it says what needs to be said but is never blunt or trite. Henry’s brilliant twist is that the lyrical lament is attributed to retired baseball legend Willie Mays, who opines, “This was my country/This was my song/Somewhere in the middle there/Oh, it started badly and it’s ending wrong.”
Two other standout tracks are “Time Is a Lion,” which is about as close to mainstream as the album gets, and “I Will Write My Book,” a tender piano number that would sound hokey in less capable hands but completely works here. Closing things out is “God Only Knows,” a placid and haunting thematic summation of Civilians: “I try to be a light in love, and pray that it is enough for now.”
Actually, it’s more than enough.