Review: Joe Henry remains a unique voice on ‘Thrum’

Joe Henry, “Thrum” (earMUSIC)

These songs don’t wish to be labeled. They’re not pop, even though the singer is Madonna’s brother-in-law. You won’t hum to “Thrum.”

They’re not country, Joe Henry’s genre early in his career. They’re not the blues or jazz or Americana — not with Henry channeling Rilke and Rimbaud. They’re just different, even by Henry’s standards, and fascinating.

The Grammy-winning producer recorded his 14th solo album live in the studio direct-to-tape. The core combo was bass, drums and his acoustic guitar, with woodwinds by Henry’s son, Levon, and occasional keyboards. Blemishes include buzz, hiss and creaky furniture, but the immediacy of the edgy performances makes them as distinctive as the material.

There are few hooks, solos, bridges or even choruses, leaving the emphasis properly on the words. Henry says he drew inspiration from dead poets, and the 11 songs have a literary bent as they wrestle with existential questions. He narrows his vocabulary and includes repeated references to darkness and light, hunger and time, rivers and cages, giving the album thematic continuity. He even repeats the word “writ.”

The lyrics include flashes of humor and an appetite for the challenges of this world. But Henry has mortality on his mind and blood on the tracks. They warn us that life is a climb, letting go is part of the deal, and much of the rest is just a guess.

Along the way, these songs can serve as a source of comfort. There’s a label that deserves to stick.