By Josh Hurst
Joe Henry has a fertile theological imagination. In his liner notes for the 2007 album Civilians he comments on “how often God is mentioned” in the songs: “not the god of my Methodist raising, who sat judging tennis balls ‘in’ or ‘out’ from high on a perch; but one among us, who stretches like the net itself, wholly visible and there but to frame the attempt.”
There’s something of Flannery O’Connor in Henry’s words, particularly her distinction between “Christ-centered” and “Christ-haunted.” Henry’s songs are nothing, it seems to me, if not Christ-haunted, and even when he’s not singing directly about the deity—as he almost never does—one can’t help but sense something of the divine lurking around the margins.
Take Henry’s song “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation.” Less a biography of or homage to the late comedian than an open wound, the song takes on the form of a dirge, the drummer setting a steady cadence that Henry matches with his smoky, measured singing, relenting from his careful pace only long enough for jazz legend Ornette Coleman to lay down a blazing blues solo, as if hoping his sax will prove more effective than Henry’s words in exorcising the demons of need and addiction that haunt the piece and its titular character.
“Sometimes I think I’ve almost fooled myself,” the narrator intones, an admission of culpability and a nod to one of Henry’s recurring themes—the human tendency to willfully suppress the truth. Without truth there can be no liberty, and the narrator senses it: “It’s almost like I was free.”
There is a haunting desperation here as well—Pryor’s gestures of self-destruction and wild desire are placed in the balance alongside his comic genius and the ways he strove to break through the barricades of racial prejudice. But this is not the climax the story, merely the exposition. The lines that clinch it, that elevate the song into something else entirely, come at the very end: “Remember me for trying / and excuse me while I disappear.” Here is perhaps the greatest feat of Henry’s narrative skill: He tells a story of frailty and weakness, of depravity and destruction, but he tells it with compassion, rendering his characters with a dignity that prevents them from being reduced to cautionary tales.
That dignity arguably derives from another character—the one framing the shot and imbuing the proceedings with a curious gravity. We see this in “Our Song,” the astonishing centerpiece of Civilians—a song about America, about God and man—and the greatest center-fielder of all time.
Here Henry imagines happening upon Willie Mays in the garage door opener aisle of a Scottsdale Home Depot. He overhears the man speak to his wife in a voice of sadness and frustration: “This was my country / This was my song / Somewhere in the middle there / Oh it started badly, and it’s ending wrong.”
In this song Henry’s storytelling imagination takes another surprising theological turn—Mays is the first character to identify God directly, pointing to his presence at the edge of the frame. For if Mays’ lament begins as a funeral dirge for a wayward nation, it ends with a fragile hope: “This was God’s country / This frightful and this angry land / But if it’s His will, the worst of this might still / Somehow, make me a better man.”
In Henry’s stories God instigates the central action but not the conflict. On one side, there is his mysterious grace, and on the other, the darkness of human nature; between them, the tension of a world bathed in the sublime but unwilling to accept it. The title cut from Henry’s album Tiny Voices sees “God’s awful grace” in the Hebrew Exodus, where the Jews light fire to the land that once held them prisoner—a sobering homage to a God whose grace, Henry suggests, is something far too dangerous and elusive for us to understand—or even to desire. “Who wants to be here wondering when the wonders rage on through?” comes the question of the instigator, as if promising that his glorious grace is perhaps too terrible, too wonderful, too all-consuming, the thing we need and fear the most.
If “Tiny Voices” is God’s song—“put your head between your knees—I’m falling for you!” he warns—then the one that precedes it on the album, “Animal Skin,” might be humanity’s song. Here is an odd and off-kilter love song if ever there was one—a song that recognizes love as the ultimate ideal, but also as something too demanding, too dangerous, for us to handle. And so the singer rejects it for something safer and tamer: “I remember when love was something I craved / But I settled for less, and all the comfort it gave / For living is hard, when real love begins.”
Frail and damaged as we are, God’s love is something that scares us at our very core. And so there is a paradoxical struggle—Parker and Pryor become magnificent channels of grace because they make art out of their own wrestling with something comfortable and second-rate. But even their tragedies point toward an awful redemption: a nation or an individual steered, through a series of terrible and inexplicable wonders, from darkness into astonishing light.
One is tempted to say that Henry writes music for trying times—times of hardship and uncertainty—but of course that’s just a roundabout way of saying that he writes music for all times. That’s what makes it sing: The story of God and man is still being written, and the worst of these days may still, somehow, make us better men. And as for how it will end—well, there doesn’t seem to be one in sight, at least not for Henry. Quoting another Civilians cut: “Time is a story, and there will be more.”