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Picture this: a smoky dive bar at twenty to midnight. Wandering inside, you notice the moody piano player, and he begins to sing. Barely visible in the shadows, the band kicks in and catches you by surprise, sweeping you away into a series of musical dreams—striking, surreal, and strangely moving.

This is the atmosphere of Joe Henry's new album, Civilians, an exhibit of detailed portraits of an America in decline, with glimpses of transcendent hope.

Henry's a Grammy-winning producer, but his own records are like poetry readings set to ghostly music. These songs, enhanced by musicians of subtlety and style, such as guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Jay Bellerose, recall Bob Dylan's Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind.

A coachman, driving his horses into darkness, pulls up his coat and ignores the nighttime revelers. Is this the world's end, or a last chance for sinners to find grace? "Life is short," Henry sings, "But by the grace or cruel / Heart of God / The night is long."

Elsewhere, jazz giant Charlie Parker wakes up to realize, "The things we put together / The world will tear apart." But when he declares "My love is here to stay," he might be realizing the power of art to preserve a dream.

Later, baseball legend Willie Mays haunts a Home Depot, musing about American history: "This was my country /This was my song / Somewhere in the middle there / Though it started badly / And it's ending wrong." Still, he hopes that troubling times might make him "a better man."

For every glimpse of grace, there's a painful reminder of this present darkness. "God may be kind and treat you like a son," sings Henry, "but time is a lion, and you are a lamb."

Nevertheless, Civilians' high point—"You Can't Fail Me Now"—culminates with ...

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March 2008

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