Eunuch Hauteur

Leonard Cohen stepped into an avalanche; it covered up his soul. Now, when he is not this hunchback that you see, he sleeps beneath the golden hill.

OK, not Lenny per se, just some character I'm paraphrasing from Songs of Love and Hate. Who cares, with those spooky, swirling guitars and that deep, brooding voice. Drawn like goths to a flame's inverse, we shiver in appreciation, bleakly cleaving to the precise wording that makes a flesh-hugging seductive garment out of the singer's self-loathing. At least I do. Even more than arena symphonics and video surrealisms, the lair of the dark songwriter claims a side of my soul that grew up grazing on rock's corpse. It's the baroqueness of thwarted significance. And if I consume with a smile on my face, that doesn't make me any less addicted.

I want to address you as Dear Reader now. Joe Henry gets to. Click the Launchme part of the enhanced part of his just-out CD, Fuse, and there's a written letter from him, backed by a repeating loop from the Fuse instrumental "Curt Flood"— new-age hip-hop drum shuffle, plangent bass riff, cast-adrift keyboards. Second graph: "I guess, given the technology at my disposal, I should tell you everything, dear reader. Or better yet, have myself portrayed here on film by someone like Billy Bob Thornton, who could expand dramatically on all manner of the record's production, the wonder and burden of my artistry, and the hidden messages behind all my songs." Which Henry does— he's interviewed, between clips from a Sessions at West 54th taping, only it's not him saying he can't talk about his sister-in-law Madonna or that he sold his soul to make this album, it's Thornton. To return: "In the meantime, I'll try to tell you all that I remember about the process. But please keep in mind that when, hidden cryptically in the rich and cinematic lyrics of my songs, I send messages such as 'burn down the school gym,' 'join the navy,' or 'give your parents' shoes to the poor,' I mean these things only figuratively. I am, after all, an artist. And I don't look back." And he doesn't tell anything.

He chews his lip to keep it sore.
Melanie Nissen
He chews his lip to keep it sore.

Details

Joe Henry
Fuse
Mammoth

Fuse the album isn't any more communicative— the songs don't spin stories so much as offer the roué/eunuch/cuckold at their center a chance to itemize his fall. "Here comes the night, there go your knees/Reaching for the floor." "I'll chew my lip to keep it sore." "My hair will grow back and the dirt beneath/And my clothes will dry like blood on my teeth." Angels sing to him thus: "Give us milk, you little pig, we'll tell you when we're through." The music circles in on itself: drums funking rather than driving; piano variants including something called a Fun Machine playing minor keys with mutant textures; blues notes hanging around for cocktails; a recurrent source tape of a tripping MC degenerating over the course of an evening; appearances by members of the Wallflowers, including Jakob Dylan, for a whiff of the high life. It's seamy modern claustrophobia, deliberately mainstream rather than Afghan Whigs or Girls Against Boys edgy, costumed to resemble a fretless bassist with receding hairline and ponytail, or Michael Hutchence, rope around his neck.

But as with the Whigs' Gentlemen or House of GVSB, consistency of inventiveness turns an overwrought routine into a mood piece that keeps sucking the air in as you go. "Monkey," "Great Lake," and "Want Too Much" would be prized possessions elsewhere; here they're icon paintings on a crowded wall. Finally, at the very end, oxygen returns with a cover of "We'll Meet Again." Research says it was a 1939 hit for young Vera Lynn singing to British troops just gone to war, later covered by the Ink Spots, Frank Sinatra, and the Turtles, among others; the Byrds laid down a 12-string treatment after hearing Lynn's original played over the credits of Dr. Strangelove. Something tells me it's this last detail that inspired our mordant Mr. Henry.

He's always touted his experiments with form more than his soul, a rarity in the songwriter field. Early on (his first album came out in 1986), that meant working with musicians as disparate as Anton Fier, Don Cherry, and Mick Taylor. Shuffletown, produced by T-Bone Burnett in 1990, was deliberately stark, a two-track studio demo. There were a pair of rootsier albums recorded organically with the Jayhawks, though even here Henry was drawn to devices like his "resonator guitar." Then, on his critical breakthrough Trampoline, he decided to emigrate from America to Zooropa, layering in samples, drum loops, and all the other decentering devices of the modern-day studio. The rhythms are so pronouncedly established on that album that the drums are still audible when he pulls them away at the end.

Trampoline moved all of 16,000 units and it's Henry's bestseller; form is nice but won't suffice. So this time he's going for attitude, with friends like Burnett, Daniel Lanois, and Jakob D beefing up his crew. A man can only feel like a commercial neuter so long, especially when nearly every album he makes raises his craft from the last. Am I an artist, he wonders, or just some sort of hyperarticulate monkey? Old films and ballplayers echo in his head, shadowy chuckles. Feelings a little over-the-top, too corny to countenance, but there they are. He dives into the snow.

Joe Henry plays Shine March 11.

 
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