Joe Henry’s ninth album, and first for label Anti, is his most ambitious and rewarding recording to date. This outing is not so much a marked departure from his last record, 2001’s “Scar,” as the organic development of his craft might suggest. It might seem the less obvious masterpiece upon first listen, but these songs are cut from the same purple cloth as the last one: smoky and reflective, heavy on atmosphere. Where does Henry get such a confident, swaggering sense of style?
If one could figure out the weight of the smoke seeping out of your speakers, it might serve as an appropriate measure for Henry’s muse-a force that dissipates, like smoke, as soon as it is utilized. His output has always had style to burn, but now the ashes themselves feel like vital components of the overall design. His cigarette-stained vocal calls out like a beacon of light over the chaotic (and often cacophonous) array of sounds smashing against each other. Colors emanate from a creative abrasion that could only have arisen from live-in-the-studio takes.
Imagine a Miles Davis-like “Bitches Brew” session with Henry as its genus loci directing traffic and you get a taste of what this record sounds like. Controlled chaos might be a good description, but Henry’s focus is too literate and sophisticated to descend into anarchic untidiness. The beauty of “Tiny Voices” is uncovering the layers of its intricacy, which only reveal themselves through careful, repeated listens. Not only a top-notch songwriter and musician, Henry is one talented producer as well.
As a lyricist, Henry continues to be one of our most evocative, thought-provoking artists. Only Henry can take a line like, “I could dance when I was young/And I was pretty good,” and not only make it sound funny but heartfelt. This is not to suggest that these songs are confessional; Henry claims he’s not “exorcizing any demons.” The “I” of Henry’s narrator is not exactly the artist himself, but one of the same types of characters that popularized the hopelessly lovelorn ambience of “Scar.”
Henry may be our first (and only) noirish art-pop balladeer, one who mines those dark corridors of the human heart, incubating diamonds of wisdom and poetry so that these tiny voices may be heard. This is the best album of the year, regardless what comes out between now and January.