What else is Joe Henry but a gentle-voiced being…I say that because from what I now know about him,–the way he thinks about circumstance and relationships with people and places–he would probably offer no lengthier description of himself.
“I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble,” he says, after composing a metaphor equating stage 4 prostate cancer to worrying about an infestation of ants in the house. He addresses the experience with honest humility, but reminds us exactly how much he doesn’t care to split the disease from himself; well-meaning fan mail referencing the cancer-as-battle trope were grating rather than inspiring. Fighting his own body is an illogical concept to him. Instead, he sees a reconfigurations of his total identity into another form, one that is not assignably positive or negative.
But he swings through this part of his between-songs soliloquy comparatively quickly to what he prefers to focus on: the etymological history of his music. Sure, the influence of his illness bleeds into his most recent album (The Gospel According to Water), but there is not notably more soulful reflection now than compared to his earlier works. He has always been an introspective character, aspiring to make music that sounds like poetry. There is heavy use of similes and metaphors, comparing distant emotional environments and objects rather than pointing out differences.
What has changed is his dedication to unclenching his grip on control. A quick perusal of his older music shows lyrics rooted in emotions a little more vicious in nature, and a little more certain in his knowledge:
“Notice how I vanish
And your world remains,
You show your head above it
For spite, nothing more,
Like you thought just living
Was somehow its own reward.” (From “Mean Flower” off his 2001 album Scar.)
Even his album titles have gotten progressively gentler, from titles like Fuse and Scar to Shine a Light and Thrum. He has grown not exactly passive, but more understanding of the connection between himself and the other floating things of the world. He rejects distinct separation in favor of greater fluidity. I would argue still that this is not simply an effect of being faced with a likely, rapid death; he is not old, but he is not so young–staring down one’s mortality whether it be through a violent illness or passing painlessly is a strongly altering experience.
He’s kind of the love child of Alex Turner and Leonard Cohen, soft in tone but can sometimes border on over-stylized. He has an electric voice but one that’s well-insulted by a cocoon of soft rubber. Usually he deals in the lower pitches, which works well for those whose youth is becoming a memory. He doesn’t try for any falsetto nonsense, which almost never works out well for men of a certain age. This decision aligns with his philosophies, in which he prioritizes acceptance rather than making things a fight. I was coming from church before the show, the sermon about giving into thine enemies, turning the other cheek and whatnot. Given his own dedication to Christianity, it makes sense that he would draw upon such readings to form the basis for his newest tunes.
Note: photo credit for featured image is:
Hamilton, Jacob. Mlive.com, MLive, Ann Arbor, 21 Feb. 2020, https://www.mlive.com/news/j66j-2020/02/dfc471b5873850/harry-potter-and-storytelling-festival-5-things-to-do-in-ann-arbor-feb-2123.html.