Joe Henry is a slippery singer with a penchant for noir. He crafts refined, heart-tugging songs of love, ambivalence, and regret, and sounds like the love child of Tom Petty and Edith Piaf. On Scar, Henry sings both ruefully and stylishly over jewel-like arrangements in tunes that are both memorable and disquieting: "Mean Flower" etches Henry's complex attitude toward women, with contradictory lyrics that are both nurturing and cutting; "Stop," which was a hit for Henry's sister-in-law Madonna as "Don't Tell Me," is snappy and defiant; and "Edgar Bergen" is Henry talking to and through himself, a Charlie McCarthy searching for his manipulator's heart. The man's a flirt -- and not only toward and about people. His stylistic versatility makes him hard to pigeonhole and is the reason everyone from Ornette Coleman to Me'shell Ndegeocello, Marc Ribot, and Brian Blade wants to work with him. All do here, and each collaboration succeeds.
The album is enigmatic, rich, and edgy, and if Henry tours -- and God knows he should behind this beauty -- the shows should be as unique and masterful as this album. Produced by Craig Street (the jazz-based crossover guy who worked similar wonders for Cassandra Wilson and Chris Whitley), Scar has a huge soundscape and peculiar voicings. There's clarinet, accordion, and thunderfog drums, and Coleman's contribution, an instrumental piece called "Nico Lost One Small Buddha," is a prickly blast. Above all, there's Henry's voice, an oracular whisper that winds up haunting you to sleep or awake -- you don't know which, and it doesn't matter.