Joe Henry



By Tim Sheridan

Among the many lasting images Stanley Kubrick left us is the ultimate shot in Dr. Strangelove, when Slim Pickens rides down to Russia astride the H-bomb. Kubrick created a perfect ironic moment: it’s absurd and pathetic, and yet Pickens as Major T.J. “King” Kong is ecstatic as he embraces not only his own death but the end of the world as we know it. In an apparent homage, Joe Henry–a singer-songwriter whose deadpan delivery of twisted tales bears some resemblance to Kubrick’s storytelling style–concludes his new album, Fuse, with a loving cover of “We’ll Meet Again,” the Vera Lynn chestnut that also closes the film. Like Kubrick’s cold-war masterpiece, Fuse is a bittersweet comedy of obsession that follows its cast to an inescapable fate, with the rich atmosphere and constant motion we expect to find in good films but rarely get from records.

It’s not the first time Henry has incorporated his professed love of the movies into his music: his 1990 album, Shuffletown, closes with “Ben Turpin in the Army,” in which the hero likens himself to the cross-eyed comedian of silent films, and in “Third Reel,” from Kindness of the World (1993), he sings, “Well they’ve torn up the streets and / Burned off the fields / And turned all the dogs to the woods / They took up the cross / But they lost the third reel / And the picture was just getting good.” Other narratives on his early albums evoke film archetypes less directly: “King’s Highway,” from Short Man’s Room (1992), is as disturbing a monologue as any Norman Bates ever delivered. A hitchhiker dispassionately relates how he killed his ride, then robbed the corpse out of courtesy, so the dead man “wouldn’t have to feel so bad / To think I’d killed him just because / He was passing through this town / And only ’cause he looked about right / And he stopped when I flagged him down / On the King’s Highway tonight.”

Henry’s early use of country-and-western ornaments and his collaboration with members of the Jayhawks on Short Man’s Room and Kindness of the World have pigeonholed him as an alt-country artist for a good portion of his career. But he wriggled out of that straitjacket on Trampoline in 1996, replacing Gary Louris with Helmet’s Page Hamilton on guitar and tossing in a rough cover of Sly Stone’s “Let Me Have It All.” At the same time, he honed the cinematic element of his songwriting. “Flower Girl” in particular is a grand melodrama rendered with remarkable economy: “Because there was no gold mine / I freed the dogs / And burned their sled / And killed the guide / Asleep in bed / And pushed him off into the drink.”

But despite these bold efforts, the album still suffered from a somewhat choppy flow and a sense of uncertainty in the approach. Fuse has no such problems. Further exploring the soulful sound of Trampoline, Henry creates more layers in both his music and his narratives. Though there’s no formal plot, there’s a definite theme: Henry’s motley lovers and losers are all abused by the lesser angels of their nature. Yet when one character finally stands his ground against the empty promises of love, he finds there’s still no guarantee of redemption.

The album begins with a voice, not Henry’s, announcing, “I don’t wanna, ah, get, you know, really nasty to begin with,” over a drumbeat that continues into the opening track, “Monkey,” the story of a hapless lover who pledges to wait for a woman who has obviously abandoned him. “I’ll keep your monkey,” he sings. “I’ll cut your corn and keep it dry…I’ll chew my lip to keep it sore.” As he runs down his laundry list of masochistic duties, we see this is clearly not the hero we aspire to be but the sucker most of us are. When the other shoe drops, it arrives with Busby Berkeley production values: “Here comes the Rapture of song and story / Looking just like the Ice Capades / I’ll play the harlot when they make the movie.”

As the next song, “Angels,” begins, with almost no pause, the voice from the album’s opening returns, as it will again and again throughout the album. It’s credited in the liner notes to a performance artist named George Seedorff, whom Henry’s brother recorded some 20 years ago at a reading. Henry rediscovered the tape in his brother’s attic, and on Fuse he uses Seedorff as a sort of found Greek chorus.

The parade continues: The protagonist of “Angels” is a chump who literally gets kicked around by his guardian angels (“Give us milk, you little pig, we’ll tell you when we’re through”). The protagonist of “Skin and Teeth” figures, “I gambled I would lose / I guess I win.” Not until the penultimate song, “Beautiful Hat,” do we meet an individual who dares to defy his sorry fate and look to the future: “I’m through with this, this beautiful hat / I’ve never let nothing be as easy as that / I won’t let it be like the nest of a dream / Or a cradle for stones when all of this seems / As likely as stones are to rise up and sing / As likely as birds to fly out of this thing.” At the end, he makes peace with the hat’s owner, promising that if she’ll take away this last remnant of their love, he’ll “swear it was true / That nothing has ever looked better than you.”

The entire album exudes a kind of sweet, danceable darkness, with sparse drum loops, moody bass lines, and delicate guitar and synthesizer washes, but “Beautiful Hat” is specifically rendered as a funereal waltz, with baleful horns by the Dirty Dozen. It sounds, in short, like an ending. But as the song fades we hear a roller coaster plummeting, passengers screaming, which in turn fades to explosions and Seedorff’s maniacal bellow: “But I will hate and kill to destroy and I ain’t alive and I can’t die!” Then Henry croons “We’ll Meet Again.”

The album’s title, Fuse, suggests hope for Henry’s characters: he might’ve brought them together somehow, let them find companionship if not happiness. Instead the “fuse” is the slow-burning thread that runs though all their stories, leading to a final irony: After the real final notes have floated away, Seedorff mutters, “But Jesus Christ, all I wanted was an orange sarsaparilla.” And all the fruitless desires and small victories of the album’s characters are reduced to ashes.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo.