The blues is one of the most spiritual of all musical styles. No other genre bemoans the brokenness and suffering of the world or longs for redemption from evil quite like the blues. So it was only a matter of time before Joe Henry, a songwriter for the soul if there ever were one, would craft an album deeply rooted in the blues tradition. The result, Henry’s eleventh studio album, Blood from Stars, is a rich and complex listen on which Henry drinks deeply from the wells of blues and jazz while considering the relationship between suffering and redemption.
Henry takes the spiritual themes of the blues to their logical conclusion on Blood from Stars. He has crafted an album on which the music is as deep, dark, and mysterious as its themes, and yet its conclusion is one of hope reminding us that though shadows and fear cover us, so does love and grace. These are not new themes for Henry, but have been with him throughout his lengthy career showing up noticeably on his 2003 album, Tiny Voices. Although that record could be considered a more impressive work, Blood from Stars may be a better – and indeed, the best – Joe Henry album in that it showcases his wide array of talents better than any single disc in his oeuvre.
One of those talents displayed prominently on Blood from Stars is Henry’s skill as a producer. Already 2009 has seen two Henry-produced records: Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s A Stranger Here and Allen Toussaint’s brilliant The Bright Mississippi. If there was any doubt, it’s clear now that Henry’s role as producer is fueling his creative fires as a songwriter and bandleader. On Blood from Stars, Henry incorporates some of the rugged blues folk of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and some of the New Orleans jazz of Allen Toussaint into his own recording.
Of course, it’s easy to incorporate the sounds of these other artists since Henry uses the same band for all the records he produces and records. This group of musicians, who play together like a well-oiled machine, includes David Piltch on bass, Patrick Warren on piano, Tom Waits collaborator and all-around terrific musician Marc Ribot on guitar, and the inimitable Jay Bellarose who seems to be able to conjure thunder with his drums. This record is distinct in that it becomes more of a family affair as Henry’s own 17-year old son, Levon, plays saxophone and clarinet on many of the tracks including a romantic instrumental number, “Over Her Shoulder,” which Henry wrote specifically to showcase his son’s saxophone playing.
As terrific as the music is on Blood from Stars, it provides the perfect compliment to Henry’s unrivaled lyrics. He is as skilled at writing lyrics as he is pinpointing the great truths of the universe, so it’s significant that he seems to begin things backwards on Blood from Stars. Most blues songs begin with the narrator decrying the evil that’s been done to himself and in some cases, the singer eventually realizes that ultimately they’ve brought some of their hardships upon themselves. However, Henry begins his blues album, not by lamenting the evil that exists outside of him, but by bemoaning the evil within.
Henry’s very first words on the record form one of its most startling admissions: “Nobody knows the man that I keep hid.” He continues by adding another line indicting himself and every listener: “You say you’ve changed/But fear you won’t/I say I’ve changed/And prove I don’t.” Herein lies the zenith of the blues as one realizes that, at times, they really are their own worst enemy. It’s a shocking truth which will ring true in a deep place in some listeners.
As fans of Joe Henry might expect, he is not held back whatsoever by the repetitive nature of blues songs; instead, these self-imposed constraints seem to have only aided his writing. The lyrics that float over Ribot’s bluesy Flamenco guitar on “This is My Favorite Cage,” fit together like puzzle pieces forming a final picture that is unforgettable. Other examples of Henry’s lyrical skill appear on “All Blues Hail Mary” and “Bellwether,” which both build narratives using series of repeated lines and phrases.
Henry’s doesn’t focus only on the darkness within the human heart; he acknowledges the darkness outside of us as well. But to hear Henry tell it, even the darkness and trouble of the world isn’t something to fear. “Trouble is so underrated,” he declares in the blues stomper, “Death to the Storm,” which is reminiscent of another Henry lyric from several albums ago: “Trouble comes to those who need it most.” In Henry’s thinking, times of darkness sometimes reveal the brightest lights. Or as he sums up the record in its final verse: “So light no lamp when the sun comes low/Pull the dark close to your face/Shadow’s fears cover you like clothes/But likewise so do love and grace.”
To state it plainly, Blood from Stars may number not only among the best records of 2009, but of the decade. Perhaps the greatest achievement of the album is how it illustrates for us the miracle of redemption; Henry shows us a world that is mysterious and beautiful in which life blossoms out of brokenness, light bursts forth out of darkness, and blood flows from stars.