Over the course of over 30 years, Joe Henry has been producing quality albums of his own thoughts and mediations, covering a gamut of styles, depth and complexity. He is a Grammy award-winning producer, having with worked alongside artists of the calibre of Joan Baez, Bonnie Raitt, Billy Bragg, Jackson Browne, Allen Toussaint, and countless others.
He has garnered huge critical acclaim, without achieving a wider audience than his highly literate work truly deserves.
‘All The Eye Can See’ is his best album. So far.
The last few years have been difficult for the artist to say the least. Shortly before the shared traumas created by the pandemic, Joe was faced with a major health crisis, which thankfully has passed. Out of these events, have emerged the most personal songs of his career.
No matter that some of them speak in poetic language and from the perspective of character study: my own trembling heart thrums at their centre; and within them, I have unfurled my fears for our greater endurance as well as my own; stand in the weather of personal grief, and send my small kite of hope up into its volatile storm.
At times, it is not an easy album. Joe himself suggests messages might be hidden, that he is unaware of and open to each listener’s own interpretation. However, It’s an album to be savoured, not rushed and does require attention and repeat plays, but it yields rich dividends to the listener.
The music is soft and quietly seductive, drawing us into his ruminations on a host of subjects. Loss, Strength in family, Art and it’s worth, and our own place in the world. There are over 20 musicians on the album, of the calibre of Daniel Lanois, his son Levon Henry on saxophone and clarinet, Alison Russell, and Lisa Hannigan among others. The music is played quite majestically, as one might expect, but almost as an aural backdrop to the beautifully composed lyrics. ‘O Beloved’ is an exception with a full orchestration, but it never is allowed to interfere with the character’s thoughts:
Beloved, your world is much stranger than we had ever imagined each other to be, Beloved, we’re left very little unsaid, and nothing unsung over the dead Whose vanishing rise enlivens the blue, O Beloved, I hide from and I’m running to you
The lyrics can be dense and complex, dealing with hefty issues, leading to a mediation on the subjects.
At other times, the imagery is vivid and succinct, and the words hugely emotional, cutting to the bone, and the heart, as on his beautiful elegy to his mother, ‘Kitchen Door’:
I’m everywhere, my love, that you can find then wonder is that me I hear or some imagining, or did your voice just always speak through mine?
Breathtakingly beautiful, and heartbreaking. This is love and reverence for a lost loved one, and perhaps a questioning of one’s own place in the world in their absence. Listeners may derive different meanings, but for anyone experiencing loss, there is an emotional synchronicity and a real solace and comfort to be gained, from one of Joe Henry’s finest songs.
Joe has oft said that his influences loom larger in the ranks of poets and novelists, than singers and songwriters. This has been evidenced in the past, with Joe being able to reference classic song structure, rather than slavishly adhere to the rules and conventions of the form.
There is a quiet, almost understated elegance to the music, despite the presence of 20 supreme musicians on the album, which allows the focus to hone in on his exquisite phrasing and lyrics, and, yes, at times a lexiconic labyrinth. Ideas and motifs are given flight by the writer; some will land on the listener with great resonance, and others will float past, coded, leaving an enigmatic trail.
The ‘hooks’ on the album, are not melody-driven, rather they are words and phrases that will intrigue and beguile.
So many songs will give up meaning at different times, perhaps even in different life circumstances. Whilst they were written in a time of crisis, personally and globally, ultimately, these are songs of optimism.
Booked ended with two rather lovely instrumentals by Daniel Lanois, it’s hard to find fault with the album.
I began to list the stand-out tracks, ‘Yearling’, ‘Mission’, ‘Karen Dalton’ ‘Red Letter Day’, ‘Small wonder’, and the wondrous ‘Kitchen Door’, but I stopped as I released the exercise was pointless. I was merely listing the contents of the album.
These are songs to stretch the mind, warm the heart and comfort the soul, from a real poet laureate of song.
If you haven’t heard Joe Henry before, I urge you to redress the omission, then trawl his previous works.
There is much bounty to be gained