Joe Henry wanted to make a sexy record, and with Fuse (Mammoth), his seventh album, he succeeded. "The stuff I go back to and listen to all the time, those records are incredibly sexy, and it drove me really crazy," Henry says from his home in Los Angeles. "I thought, why don't I know how to make records that work that way? I don't want to make cerebral records. If I hear one more person say that, I'll blow my brains out."
I hope the threat is in jest, because his reputation as a brainy lyricist isn't likely to wane. Fuse manages to be both sexy and cerebral, melding thick, sinuous grooves, seductive samples and smart, surreal lyrics that insinuate themselves with the hallucinatory power of a strange dream. Henry is obviously still working hard on the words to his songs, but he's finally devised a way to get the ass involved as well as the head. "I had this revelation. I was elated by it and destroyed by it, to realize that if things groove really good, if the groove is really funky, you can get away with saying everything or nothing. It's a tough realization for someone who worked really hard at being a quote-unquote wordsmith. If the groove's not there, it doesn't matter what you say."
Henry's last album, Trampoline, was a mesmerizing collage of drum loops, spooky samples and tremolo guitar. It was widely hailed as a departure from his previous records, Short Man's Room and Kindness of the World, which Henry recorded with the Jayhawks as his backing band. More folk-inflected than his recent work, these albums caused Henry to be lumped in with the alt-country scene, a classification that Henry found confining. "With Trampoline, I was learning a new way to work. After Kindness of the World, I thought, if I don't learn to work differently, I'm done. I felt completely trapped by the parameters I'd inadvertently set up for myself sonically and structurally. Recording live in the studio was always something I'd done because I didn't know any other way to work, not because I was some kind of purist. It's like doing live theater: Mistakes and all, that becomes part of the fabric of the performance. I didn't want to think like a live-theater person anymore; I wanted to think like a filmmaker. I wanted to be able to manipulate things and create illusion."
What allowed Henry to pursue this continued on page 69continued from page 67new model for songwriting was the recording studio he set up in his garage with the help of Patrick McCarthy, who co-produced Trampoline and, more recently, engineered Henry's sister-in-law Madonna's Grammy-winning Ray of Light. ("That's one introduction I should have gotten a point for," Henry chuckles.) Most of Fuse was initially recorded in Henry's home studio, with Henry playing all the instruments himself. "Once I was far enough with the songs, where they kind of had their own identity, I realized where I was hitting a wall, my limitations. I started bringing in people one at a time to replace and augment things."
Henry -- whose previous recordings have featured musical guests ranging from Mick Taylor to Don Cherry to Helmet's Page Hamilton -- credits the musicians on Fuse with crucial roles in constructing the album's shimmery, sensuous layers of sound. In addition to bassist Jennifer Condos and drummer Carla Azar (who was largely responsible for the syncopated brilliance of Trampoline), Fuse boasts Randy Jacobs, who has also played with Was (Not Was), the Boneshakers, Mavis Staples and Dr. Dre. "(Jacobs) understood that what I was trying to do was to make a really soulful record in earnest," Henry says. "He made it real and not an affectation." Henry also enlisted keyboard player Jamie Muhoberac, whose resume includes stints with Seal and Chocolate Genius. Other contributors are Chris Whitley; the Dirty Dozen Brass Band; Daniel Lanois and T-Bone Burnett, who helped mix the record; and Jakob Dylan (of the Wallflowers), who sings backup on the chorus of "Skin and Teeth," the first single. "You can barely tell it's him," Henry admits. "There are people in my camp who really wished I had featured him more: 'You've got him in the studio; get him to sing a duet with you or something.' Believe me, if I could have made that work, if it would have been musically appropriate, I would have been all for it. Selling more records, great. But it's more like a ghost behind me than it is a traditional harmony."
Whether Dylan's vocals are discernible or not, "Skin and Teeth" might be the breakthrough Henry needs to go from critics' darling to someone who matters in the realm of commercial radio. "It's the first time I've made a record that way and consciously went after that as an idea," Henry explains. "For things to get significantly different for me, radio kind of has to come to the table." "Skin and Teeth," a lush and irresistibly catchy track that recalls late-'70s Roxy Music, represents Henry's attempt to "write in a way that was still the way I write, but if you want to dig deeper, it works on that level, and then if you want to just hear it go by, like a radio song, maybe it works that way, too." He laughs, observing that "if you say 'I love you' in the chorus, you can almost say anything in the verses."
When I compare this approach to the formula behind many of Bob Dylan's best songs, Henry agrees: "I was kind of avoiding that reference, but that's exactly what it is. 'I Want You' -- those verses are like a snakepit. That whole record, Blonde on Blonde, is all about this pop formula that he's subverting from the inside out. 'Just Like a Woman' is a really strange song, but it goes by so easy because it's so familiar -- 3/4 time is as ancient as anything, and there's this beautiful pop chorus. There's almost nothing he couldn't have said in the verse with a chorus like that. Anyone could grab it as it goes by."
Henry is frequently compared to Bob Dylan, someone he admires but doesn't slavishly emulate. "First of all, I always think it's limiting as a songwriter to only talk about other songwriters in terms of influence. In that regard, even as a musician, I've probably been more influenced by my parents than I have by Bob Dylan. The person I've become and the way that I hear things and see things and choose to execute them has as much to do with my personality as it has to do with my musical taste. It's not just a matter of picking out what kind of records I have in my collection, which is disturbingly still what most journalists want to talk about, like if they can figure out what you've been listening to, they're allowed to move on and go interview somebody else."
Indeed, Henry is more likely to mention nonmusical sources of inspiration: film directors such as Fellini, Herzog and Bunuel or writers like Carver and Burroughs. The darkly gorgeous "Want Too Much" evokes the paintings of Marc Chagall with its off-kilter dream logic and imagist verses: "In dreams I fly above the barn/With goats and violins, I want too much." Another song on the album, the instrumental "Curt Flood," pays homage to the former St. Louis Cardinal who, after being traded without his consent, took his case to the Supreme Court. Although Flood lost, his efforts helped launch the free-agent system that exists today. After seeing a Spike Lee documentary on the legendary outfielder, Henry set out to write a song about him. "I tried to write it about him, but I didn't want to make it like a Woody Guthrie song, you know, 'The Ballad of Curt Flood.' It just never worked. It came to me all at once that the beautiful thing about an instrumental is that you can call it anything. I thought it was kind of bold, I thought it was groovy and I thought it was elegant in a certain way. And I thought it was really tough in a certain way. It just made sense to me: That's my song about Curt Flood."
Bold, groovy, elegant and tough: These adjectives could also describe the record as a whole. Henry believes Fuse succeeds in areas where his previous albums fell short. "I feel like such a baby," he exclaims. "I'm so naive. I'm just learning how to make a record like you can really make a record. But you live and learn, and you just hope you live long enough to get good at something.