Joe Henry: ‘Blood From Stars’

I don’t write to music. For me, silence is the mother of sound, as to dancers and actors stillness is the mother of movement (and stillness can bear some fine fruit to the writer as well). But music stirs me in unique ways. And song, with its particular marriage of music & word, has a singular ability to jar us, transport us, and set us down in unexpected territory. So I often turn to music and song for beginnings, or just to be shook from old stale patterns. I wrote here recently about a newly-published story inspired by a Jen Trynin lyric. And one of my favorite stories-in-progress is bookended with lines from a Throwing Muses song (no one need suffer writer’s block with Kristin Hersh around).

Joe Henry is a songwriter’s songwriter–and a writer’s songwriter. You’ve likely heard his lyrics: sister-in-law Madonna re-recorded his song ‘Stop’ as ‘Don’t Tell Me’ (Tell the bed not to lay like the mouth of an open grave/ Not to stare up at me like a calf on its knees.) Outside that he’s little known, if in certain circles widely revered. His new CD Blood From Stars is his best since 2001’s Scar, his other masterpiece. Though one review declares it his most jazz-influenced recording (true, it features jazz luminaries like Marc Ribot and Jason Moran), it is the blues that animates Blood. No major songwriter since Dylan has so relentlessly mined the blues–and its core tension between repetition and variation. (Which listeners of Charles D’Ambrosio’s recent craft lecture at Tin House will recognize as essential to fiction as well.)

The music is amazing, as are the lyrics, some of Henry’s best:

  • Now there’s a cut on my cheek that I can’t leave alone / I reach it to find just how close to the bone / Does my skin and my blood allow me to dare / To live in the word of my every prayer
  • True revelation is a thug and it comes with narrow grey eyes not the rolling of drums / It may take your hand but is seeking your thumbs
  • and from his liner notes, describing an antique marching drum used on the CD: I know that sounds like thunder. Or a great sack of walnuts dropped on the hood of a Crown Victoria. Or like Fats Waller taking a fall down a flight of stairs into a damp alley, bottle caps stuck to his heels…
Published in: on August 24, 2009 at 3:33 pm  Comments (2)  
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  1. Okay, I’m sold. There was also that wonderful onstage interview Steve Almond did with Joe Henry and Aimee Mann at the Festival of Books a couple of years ago. It was like sitting in a living room with 2 wonderful songwriters as they tried out some of their material on you.

  2. I guess I’m not surprised to find a writer writing on Joe Henry. I came across your post as I was searching for the lyrics to Blood From Stars. I had my first listen today as I plugged away at my NaNoWriMo effort. I don’t usually write to pop music—lyrics are distracting—but I felt quite confidant that any mood Joe threw at me would do the trick.

    I think this is his best since Fuse, which I rate as top. There are some lyrics on Fuse that are alive within at all times, part of my personal psycho-spiritual lexicon.

    Blood From Stars is his best marriage of lyric and music to me since that release; this album carries a similar fecund power that civilians and tiny voices lacked for me. I will need another listen or two to ascertain if BFS lyrics will enter my bloodstream in the same way.

    If I remember correctly, he has said in the past that he does not like to be considered a singer/songwriter; I always found that interesting, as his lyrics are quintessential to the music. But maybe that’s it—the words are so deeply essential to the mood of the music, and the music such metaphor for the tale of the music. He would not fully express what’s needed with either alone.

    I don’t know…I’ve been following him since Trampoline, based on the old Q & A feature in Rolling Stone; all I can say is he has an unparalleled gift of expression.

    Looking forward to seeing some tour dates announced…as of last Friday, there weren’t any.


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