Joe Henry’s Invisible Hour: An exclusive review by Josh Hurst

{Ed. note:  It is once again my great honor and pleasure to feature a review by Josh Hurst.  Over the years, Josh has written many thought-provoking pieces about the music of Joe Henry.  In this exclusive review of Invisible Hour (due on June 3), I feel safe in stating that Josh has outdone himself.  He has written not only an eloquent and thoughtful review of the new record, but he has highlighted the common thematic threads that bind much of Joe Henry’s music over the past decade.  It is, put simply, a breathtaking tribute to a stunner of an album.  

Profound thanks to Josh for the contribution.}

Invisible Hour by Joe Henry
A review by Josh Hurst

So sleep here with me
And I’ll keep you close
For now while I try
To live up to you.
You can’t see the challenge of this,
I suppose, but
Time is a dare
And I’m trying to.

jhenry_pic2_lgWith that final verse, Joe Henry flipped the script on one of his best songs (“Time is a Lion,” from the Civilians album). In a song lined with ticking clocks—the Angel of Death mentioned in the first verse, old age in the third, the setting sun in the bridge, and every beat sounding like a gutpunch reminder of time’s steady march—it’s telling that the final word goes not to the clock run out but to love’s transcendence of it; the choice to love actively and fearlessly is not rendered moot by time’s unfailing progress, but rather is made meaningful and urgent by the narrow window we have in which to get it right. This life is more than a tryout for the life to come, the song seems to tell us; what we do matters—every fucking bit of it—so we’d best get to doing, even as the clocks tick and the sun sets.

Joe Henry’s love songs are all written against the backdrop of the ephemeral, it seems to me, even when their central subject is timeless; his characters are acutely aware that this whole scheme could collapse at their feet at any moment. “How do you sing the blues?” Henry asked, in an essay he penned for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine. “By simply opening your mouth while awake to the fact that one day it won’t any longer…. By simply intoning the word ‘forever’ with the wink and lilt of a promise, knowing full well there ain’t no such a thing.” None of Henry’s characters really seem to believe in ‘forever,’ not with any kind of conviction, but they open their mouths nevertheless—every roar and every whisper a protest against time’s ravages. Certainly it’s no great surprise that on Reverie—an album described by Henry as a meditation on time’s passage—the narrative eventually winds its way to a love song called “Unspeakable,” and all the clocks stop their ticking long enough for a moment of redemptive, transformative communion between two lovers.

Now comes Invisible Hour, which one might describe as an album about love over the long haul; about commitment; about the daily revelation of love not as feeling or fancy, but conscious choice for selflessness and boldness, for affirmation and self-discovery. Joe Henry suggests in his liner notes that the album is informed by marriage, and since I happen to be married I find this interpretation to be resonant—but you don’t have to take his reading of these songs as your own, and you certainly don’t have to take mine. What matters is that the characters on Invisible Hour are not new flames; their bonds are time-tested, faithful, sacred; they haven’t necessarily had any easy time of things, but they’ve at least had time. It is an album about—to borrow a phrase from Henry’s confederates in Over the Rhine—lifelong flings.

The album was almost titled Grave Angels, and that phrase still pops up in a couple of songs. In fact, there’s a song called “Grave Angels” that could be the record’s thesis statement. The song references autumn’s falling leaves, yet love burns bright even as time marches ever toward winter—the love shared between two people affirmed as holy and sublime. In what could be a rejoinder to the jaded narrator in “Heaven’s Escape,” from Reverie, the singer here calls it folly to deny the beautiful treachery of love in this temporal life; no matter what awaits us beyond the pale, what happens here is an end unto itself—and a sweet one:

When foolish we are
In the presence of God,
And what all his grave angels have done,
In love’s growling weather
If we’re dreaming together
Of a heaven,
Apart from this one,
Apart from our own.

Incidentally, Invisible Hour was written, performed, and produced by Joe Henry; one imagines that, were it a film and not a record, he might also serve as cinematographer, choreographer, gaffer, and best boy. It is the first of his albums that he has self-released, and the first since 1999’s Fuse to bear his own image on the cover, plus original candid photos of family members and bandmates adorning the inside artwork. Truthfully, he could have self-titled it and none of us would have raised an eyebrow. He has never sung with more conviction or clarity, never written songs that so deftly abide mystery while inviting emotional investment; they are funny and literary and seemingly closer to confessional singer-songwriting than the man has allowed himself to come in the past. Invisible Hour is the best conjuring of everything that Joe Henry does well, the surest and more generous he has ever been as a performer; in a catalog that’s filled with great recordings, none of them sounding much like any of the others, this one feels likely to become the consensus pick for his new high watermark.

Yet though it bears the unmistakable mark of its auteur, Invisible Hour also carries the easygoing grace and spontaneity that come from true collaboration. The sound of it is lush and folksy—a comparison to something like Blood on the Tracks or even Simon and Garfunkel records would prove truthful enough, though the edges are blurred with the kind of heavenly and erotic mysticism that marked Van Morrison’s work circa Astral Weeks and Veedon Fleece. It’s the most guitar-based Joe Henry album yet, its sound conjuring the magic and romance of stringed instruments playing off each other, and much of that is attributable to John Smith and Greg Leisz. The Milk Carton Kids are on hand to add tender vocal harmonies, giving the record an extra dimension; they suggest a record made to envelop us, to sweet us off our feet with its sensual pleasures. The rhythm section includes drummer Jay Bellerose and electric bassist Jennifer Condos (with Dave Piltch subbing in on the upright for a couple numbers), and they provide the record with more than just a solid foundation; Bellerose’s generous splashes of cymbals seem somehow to convey something of the record’s lushness, and also its openness and availability. (Curiously, there is no piano player here—an odd thing on a Joe Henry album.)

The feel of the album seems to be shaped most profoundly by the work of Levon Henry, who appears on almost every song playing reeds, often looping himself to lend the impression of a small horn section; what he does here is beyond category, sounding not really like conventional “jazz” playing but also not much like what you’d hear on a rock or an R&B record; there’s a playfulness to what he does (especially the giddy, Monk-like carnival of sounds on “Grave Angels”) that accentuates the elder Henry’s humor (which never gets enough attention), but more than anything he drives these songs deeper and deeper into the mystic. He brings a stormy act break to “Sign,” opens the heavens on “Swayed,” and lends “Plainspeak” an earthy sense of swing.

jhenry_pic4_lgIt is no accident, of course, that Invisible Hour is both an album about marriage and also an uncommonly autobiographical album for Joe Henry—or perhaps just one that’s made to seem that way: He’s always been a smoke-and-mirrors man, and it would surely be simplistic of us to assume that the central character in each of these songs is indeed Joe Henry himself. What can’t be doubted is that, with the strange elegance and abiding warmth of this recording, Henry is more open than ever—perhaps more zealous than ever—to be heard, and in many ways that’s what Invisible Hour is about: The need that each one of us has to be understood for who we are, not just for someone to listen to us with tender heart and attentive ear but for someone to offer affirmation to our cracked beauty, our secret earthbound hearts. The characters on Invisible Hour are all broken and brittle, and the simple acknowledgement of this allows some holy and healing light to shine through.

The tremendous “Plainspeak” is concerned with this. The Milk Carton Kids leave one of their biggest marks here, adding raucous gospel harmonies to a songwriter’s confession that sounds a bit frayed at the edges; the song is generous with metaphor but clear in its lamentation that, far too often, the artist’s words are not truly heard. “When I say a bird, I mean a bird!/ Nothing less and nothing more,” the singer offers, the lyric winsomely deadpan, but the line that it hinges on is rich with implications about what it is to be an artist, a lover, a human bring: “I just need you to hear me now.” (For those who have long been under the spell of Joe Henry’s music and mourned that his repute isn’t greater, the song is resonant on a whole other level.)

The spritely “Lead Me On,” with an elegant flourish of harmony from Lisa Hannigan, also speaks to hearing and understanding as the first steps toward affirmation—and toward love. “No one you can name/ Is just that one thing they have shown,” the song tells us, as though a reminder that compassion begins when we recognize and embrace another human with all the messy contradictions that doing so entails; not incidentally, the same song offers a bold declaration of consuming love: “This is my body/ Already broken for thee.” (That this is a religious allusion does more than suggest the presence of the sublime here, but not dogmatically; besides, by this point in the album, “Grave Angels” has already suggested that the stuff of committed human love is holy in and of itself.)

A couple of other album standouts bear witness to the same truths, and both are rather stunning feats of songwriting—albeit wildly different from one another. For sheer boldness, “Sign” takes its place alongside “Our Song” and “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation” as one of the true skyscrapers in Joe Henry’s canon, a thing of staggering ambition and architectural grandeur. At nearly ten minutes it qualifies as an epic, verse after verse of prose piling on in the manner of Blonde on Blonde-era Dylan, only with a narrative thread that’s easier to lay your hands to; perhaps Gabriel Marcia Marquez is the better comparison. To betray its ending—a dramatic, Rosebud flourish that suddenly reveals the song to be about something totally different than we might first suspect—would be a disservice to listener and album both, but suffice to say it speaks in a most glorious fashion to our collective need for active, present-tense love and affirmation, and of what darkness its absence can sow. (And so a song that initially seems to have little to do with marriage is actually a perfect thing for a record that is concerned with that most sacred, mystic, and transformative of human bonds.)

The title song is as quiet and as tender as “Sign” is roaring and epic, and as such its superhuman feats of songwriting initially prove elusive. The song—credited to Henry alongside Hannigan and the great novelist Colum McCann—begins with a narrator whose punchdrunk in love, bruised and battered but better for it, or at the very least unable to pull himself away. “And though it left me high and dry/ I know soon I will ask for more,” the fellow says—and then comes a verse that offers a wondrous evocation of lifelong love through what seems, at first, to be a mere hodgepodge of dichotomies and clichés:

Salt and sugar, tooth and nail,
Tongue and groove, and all for sale;
Thoughts and prayers, words and deeds,
Bruised and broken, spilling seeds—
Tar and feathers, clocks and spoons,
Falling shoes and flashing signs;
Fits and starts, and hearts and moons
That wane come either rain or shine.

There’s not an item in that series that isn’t evocative of love’s rough and tumble, which is really sort of staggering—but it’s the final verse that pierces the heart:

We all come into this world
Scared and bare, blue and curled—
And we all bring the knife we need
To sate our mouths and not concede
The love that stands a moving bridge
Where blood moved under skin and bone—
To feel a hum and come alive
In bodies that are not our own.

Here we’re taken back to “Animal Skin,” from the now-classic Tiny Voices (“I remember when love was something I craved/ But I settled for less, and all the comfort it gave”) in a song that posits love as a holy and redemptive thing, ours for the taking—but our own eyes too clouded by fear and self-preservation to truly see it in all its rafter-shaking power. We are born broken, too broken to know what’s good for us even when it stands a moving bridge before us; yet there is something transcendent and sublime when two such broken people cross that bridge together. The closing song, “Slide”—arguably the best thing here, a holy moment of a song that’s way out on the Astral Weeks tip—conjures a similar paradox in what’s immediately one of Henry’s best lines: “We’re dying to be other/ But we’d kill not to become.”

 “Every Sorrow” comes toward the end of the record, co-written with John Smith and quite possibly clocking in at a higher BPM than any other Joe Henry song; it’s a Jay Bellerose masterpiece, crashing and rumbling in a cascade of cymbals and kicking up a sick basement ruckus that’s reminiscent of Reverie, but more anthemic than anything that album gave us—yes, even “Odetta.” It’s a love song that could only have been written with time and distance—a marriage song, in other words, in which love is not tempered or diluted but rather is deepened by wisdom and experience:

Love may challenge all our senses,
Hold us tight within its fences—
But singing out, her gate swings open,
For all the world, so weak and broken,
A story giving all a framing,
A face that waits but for a naming…
After every sorrow comes a joy,
But every story knows one more.

jhenry_pic3_lgAs Invisible Hour unfolds its pleasures and its intricacies, more parallels become clear—as in how the epic narrative in “Sign” not only fits neatly into the rest of the album’s arc but is mirrored, both in the tranquil simplicity of “Alice” (as in Munro; the song doesn’t even last three minutes) and in the stark, holy-moment poetry of album opener “Sparrow,” which like “Sign” seems to unspool the story of a lifetime, but does so with an elegant (and riddling) economy. And then there are moments that bring the big picture into clarity, like “Swayed.” “He who cannot be seduced cannot be saved/ And I hang ready to be swayed,” it goes; truly, exposing the vulnerabilities of our secret hearts, one to another, is our only rescue—which makes this most open and vulnerable of Joe Henry albums all the more moving.

Of course, there’s another Joe Henry song that echoes throughout this latest hour of music, and it is perhaps his most beloved: “I rise and fall with you/ And you can’t fail me now,” he sang once before, and Invisible Hour is nothing if not a collection of love songs that look back over the rising and the falling, over the rough and tumble (“salt and sugar, tooth and nail…”). And true enough: In its elegance and its grit, its reaching upward and inward for the sublime and its kicking up of earth and dust, it offers a bruised and beating heart to us; doesn’t mask the pain of doing so but does bear glorious witness to the transformation that it brings; bids us do the same. Like the love it speaks of, the record stands ready to seduce and change us, if only we allow it.

3 comments

  1. I would kindly disagree that in my humble opinion, that Short Man’s Room and Kindness of the World are his most guitar oriented records. Very well written review.

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