Joe Henry

Fuse (Mammoth)

I am [every character] I can create. I'm somehow a part of them. I've got the same things in me, no matter how terrible they are. -- Richard Pryor

The genre-defiant Joe Henry leads us into his eighth album, Scar, with a dirge as audacious as it is disturbing: "Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation." Henry's always had a knack for conjuring the voices of characters on the fringe, but to channel the wrecked tongue of Pryor (now nearly incapacitated by multiple sclerosis) seems particularly brazen. Yet, with the aid of free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman, he manages to pull it off, describing the audience's complicity during the comedian's heyday of mind-bending self-immolation and contrasting it with our failure of nerve to witness the damage done: "I stood on your shoulders/and I walked on my hands/You watched me while I tried to fall/You can't bear to watch me land." Coleman's supporting testimony offers a brew of melodic shards and bluesy dissonance, bubbling over a last request for love and deliverance, capped by Henry's whispering an almost apologetic "Excuse me while I disappear." It's a moment of suspended exposure, of liquefaction and aftershock.

Henry bleeds straight into "Stop," an elegant tango-macabre that borrows a page from guitarist Marc Ribot's work with Los Cubaños Postizos. The unlikely juxtaposition of these tracks signals the curves ahead. "Cold Enough to Cross," anchored by the inventive fills of rising jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, plays like a rediscovered wartime chestnut; the tragicomic "Lock and Key" would sound just as natural coming out of Jimmy Scott; "Edgar Bergen" would be at home nestled in the set list of the Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra. Still, despite the numerous style shifts, shadows sprout from every note, with Henry recording the fall of faces, suns, plane debris and railway cars, as seen through eyes blurred by the desires of the powerless.

Henry closes with the title track, a measured and intricate paean to a maturing marriage, its condition and history revealed through matching scars. In the liner notes, he dedicates the album to his wife and kids, declaring, "I am a marked man." Those that linger with this cloudy gem will be marked as well.