Joe Henry is not a man to raise his voice. Yelling would only get in the way of his sharply etched songs. At Largo to kick off a short tour Friday night, Henry was, if anything, even more restrained than usual. The show was the live debut of “Civilians,” his fine new anti-album, whose production, he said, made him feel like “a debutante on harvest day.”
The album is a collection of songs that look onto a world in which just about everything has been touched by war — collateral damage of battles foreign or domestic — with dry eyes, a drier wit and a deeply couched sense of anger, disappointment and, if we’re lucky, redemption. “Pray for you, pray for me” goes the refrain from the album’s title track. “Life is short but, by the grace of God, the night is long.”
Mortality is never far from the surface: A stooped Willie Mays shops at a Scottsdale Home Depot in “Our Time,” the album’s best song, which turns into an ambivalent anthem to “this frightful and this angry land” or just a reminder that “time is a lion when you are the land.”
Henry’s pliant four-piece band pares the songs down to their essence. The four are all longtime collaborators. Drummer Jay Bellerose and standup bassist David Pilch form an easy, unhurried rhythm section, their nodding, spacious swing leaving plenty of room for Henry’s long lined, painterly lyrics; Greg Leisz, on all sorts of guitars and mandolins, pulls the songs ever so gently toward country. Patrick Warren, on keys, does the same in the direction of jazz and sophisticated pop. It’s music that doesn’t call attention to itself, which is all the more reason to pay attention.
Henry plays Gotham’s Blender Theater at Gramercy on Thursday.