Joe Henry always tells it like it is. What this “it” is depends on his song or object of the moment, but if artistry is about honesty then here’s a man who can be a W. Eugene Smith one minute and a Romare Bearden the next. His is an Americana in context, wrought with a realism that has to, must, consider the world beyond the borders of his song. And yet his skill at creating a complexity of life within the three- or four-minute lengths typical of his work belies this, so that his portraits are breathtaking and you are standing next to him, watching and hearing him compose a complete picture.
1990’s Shuffletown recalls both the chamber folk-pop of Cat Stevens and the improvisational glow of Astral Weeks, T-Bone Burnett’s restrained production going live to two-track and allowing a breathing space that played against the channel-filling fashion of its time. I remember, then, marveling that an album like this could even get made anymore, much less thought of. A modern record with a backroads feel that doesn’t get lost in bucolic moods or sentiment, it is more defining in its sound and in its genre than it gets credit for. At its core — and the same could be said of Morrison’s and Stevens’ records — is an immediately recognizable voice, for Henry’s finesse with language is honored by a vocal delivery that is hip to its own thing, knows it limits and its power and its text. It’s also full of hooks, patient in its timing, finding and following melody in Shuffletown‘s deep dusks and twilight.
“The moon is losing ground, drowning in the river…”
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