The Deal: Tenth and best record from talented American songwriter.
The Good: Joe Henry is a born story-teller. But musical wanderlust makes his catalog a mixed bag for any listener unwilling to journey from his twangy beginnings to the jazz-inflections of his early '00s output. But Civilians synthesizes all these sonic wanderings into Henry's most consistent and assured work. Backed by, among others, Bill Frisell, Greg Leisz, Loudon Wainwright and Van Dyke Parks, the music is a rich and mostly rootsy framework for a dozen narratives that have few contemporary equals. Like Waits or Newman, Henry's songs are woven from the fabric of an America whose lofty ideals are at war with its basest commercial instincts and troubled history. "Our Song" is the centerpiece and the best protest tune of the last 30 years because it's a graceful lament built on redemption, not indignation. Few other writers could take a Home Depot sighting of Willie Mays and turn it into a complex, Dylan-esque parable for a nation that's lost its way. Elsewhere, Henry's keen eye for the desperate power struggles and cruel vicissitudes of love reveal most romance songs for the shallow puddles they are. The line between want and need is blurry at best, but Henry injects humanity and hope into the realism: "We're taught to love the worst of us/And mercy more than life, but trust me:/Mercy's just a warning shot across the bow -- /I live for yours, and you can't fail me now."
The Bad: Nope.
The Verdict: This one should be considered an American classic.