Joe Henry’s The Gospel According To Water released today

The wait is over, and today marks the release of Joe Henry’s new album, The Gospel According To Water.

Head over to JH’s website to hear each track and read introductions to each by some of Joe’s close artistic friends.

A few must-reads about the record:

‘Love & Revelation’: The Winding, Uphill Road


“The poet Christina Rosetti has a poem that begins, Does the road wind up hill all the way?  She assures us that it does indeed, until the very end, but there are surprising rewards along the way nonetheless. We don’t know that it ever really gets easier.”

-Karin Bergquist, in the press materials for Love & Revelation, due out on Mar 15

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, a young duo began writing songs from a neighborhood in Cincinnati, which at that time – 30 years ago – was considered among the most dangerous in the nation. That historic enclave would give the band its name, Over The Rhine (now, by the way, a hotbed of revitalization in the Midwestern city).

overtherhine1Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler (who would marry several years later) built a modest but devoted regional fanbase on the strength of the obvious spiritual searching reflected in their lyrics.  In the early 90’s, IRS Records heard the potential in their penetrating folk-pop and reissued their first two independent releases. IRS would only go on to issue a third album before releasing the band from its contract. But strangely – and perhaps prophetically – their two best sellers to that point would turn out to be their subsequent independent releases, a melancholy semi-Christmas release (The Darkest Night of the Year) and their breakthrough, Good Dog, Bad Dog (no doubt, still cited as a favorite among early fans).

These records would lead to a contract with Virgin imprint, Back Porch Records, as well the most press attention the band would ever receive. Their second release for Back Porch, Ohio, is widely considered a folk-rock masterpiece, a double album opus that lays bare their distinctive sense of place, a signpost that would provide the guiding impulse for much of their music – and their lives – in the coming decade.

By the time their third release for Virgin arrived, the record company had likely made its decision to mostly abandon Over The Rhine, having made a hard push with Ohio. In 2005, the record business was lurching into chaos, and Back Porch Records was little more than an afterthought in a very large corporation preparing to enter into an age of industry consolidation (Back Porch would fold up entirely shortly thereafter).

To complicate matters, Drunkard’s Prayer arrived with the startling revelation that Karin and Linford’s marriage had nearly come apart at the seams in the years preceding it. The album is as powerful and personal as anything they’ve ever recorded, and as a document of a marriage in crisis, it can be a harrowing listen. Though several tracks bear the mark of radio friendly folk-pop, most of the album reveals new musical depth. Karin’s vocals and Linford’s piano, in particular, have an after-hours unearthliness not previously heard.

overtherhine4Finding themselves without a label in 2006, Over The Rhine modestly charted a course that would set the forward path for their careers and lives, even to this day.  The band released the first of several independent live records, Live From Nowhere Vol. 1.  These would be followed by additional volumes and, ultimately, a new studio release The Trumpet Child.  The duo spoke openly during this period about their love of pre-rock and roll music and how they wanted to reflect those influences more strongly in the music.  The Trumpet Child swings and sways, sounding often like a tipsy celebration following what was no doubt a difficult period of transition for the band.  Taken in context with the darker moods of Drunkard’s Prayer, the album also made clear that Over The Rhine intended to sound like something more than a folk-rock band with literary proclivities.  In short, Over The Rhine sounded very much like themselves and not a whole lot else out there.

The plan for the next studio record would defy music industry norms at the time, while also predicting industry trends still a few years away.  Recognizing that what the band lacked in number of fans was largely compensated for by the devotion of their listeners, Over The Rhine set up a simple appeal on their website to raise funds for the recording of the record.  With no intermediary, they simply offered fans – referred to often by Linford as “extended musical family” – several options to purchase the record, along with options to receive a producer credit.  This was made possible due to the hard-earned trust between Over The Rhine and their listeners, a bond forged and honored mutually from the band’s early days.

(It is worth noting at this juncture that tech industry startups seeking to model similar crowdfunding schemes for new music appear to be flailing in recent months.  In fact, PledgeMusic, once a pioneer in music crowdfunding, is now under fire for withholding payments from artists after successful fundraising campaigns.  There are, no doubt, several lessons to be gleaned about allowing money-lenders into the temple of artists, etc., but I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.)

To this day, you can read the extensive list of names who helped fund the making of The Long Surrender included in the CD and vinyl editions of the album.  With funds in hand to create a great record, Karin and Linford made, in my opinion, the best musical decision of their careers by reaching out to Joe Henry to produce The Long Surrender.  Amazingly, if memory serves me, Joe had never heard Over The Rhine’s music at the time, despite what I think was probably a sizable overlap between his fans and theirs.  In hindsight, it seems painfully obvious that Karin and Linford would become great musical confederates of Joe, not to mention close friends.  But at the time, I was just thrilled that my favorite producer was being enlisted by one of my favorite bands to help make an album.

There’s not really much for me to say about The Long Surrender that isn’t already implied in the preceding paragraph.  It exceeded my wild expectations by a substantial margin, and remains probably my favorite Over The Rhine record, my favorite production of Joe Henry’s impressive list of work and simply one of my favorite albums ever, sitting comfortably alongside several of Joe’s own records.  Further, I think The Long Surrender accomplished musically what Karin and Linford had been laying the foundation for since Drunkard’s Prayer.  Lyrically, it is mystical but also wickedly funny.  With a band of Joe Henry regulars backing them – Jay Bellerose, David Piltch, Greg Leisz, Levon Henry, Patrick Warren – Over The Rhine seemed to find the perfect set of sympathetic musicians to realize their vision.  It was a wildly successful collaboration that would find continued success in the future.

otr_1Sometime around this time, Karin and Linford took stock of their professional and personal lives and settled on the need for a major change.  Feeling the pull of rural Ohio, the couple purchased a small farm house and barn in Martinsville, about an hour from Cincinnati.  This would turn out to be their most pivotal decision yet, laying the groundwork for a unique creative vision that is evolving even to this day.  Again turning to their extended family, funds to renovate the barn were raised online, giving fans the opportunity for intimate concerts at the site and invitations to events like songwriting workshops.

With their new rural home – lovingly named Nowhere Farm – Karin and Linford were inspired to write an album reflecting the natural wonder surrounding them and the powerful sense of home and place.  Meet Me at the Edge of the World was funded in a similar online fashion as The Long Surrender and was again recorded with Joe Henry at his Garfield House studio, with sessions beginning the day after Easter 2013.  If The Long Surrender is shrouded in smoke and shadow, Meet Me at the Edge of the World is its pastoral cousin, defined largely by Linford’s guitar work (or more specifically, his lack of piano playing).  References abound to the land and creatures occupying Nowhere Farm, and the resulting double album – the second of their career and much stronger than Ohio – reflects deep reserves of confidence and, yes, maybe even contentment.

In seeking to convert the ancient barn at Nowhere Farm to a usable performance space, Over The Rhine hosted an ambitious fundraising effort on the grounds of their home.  The so-called Barn Raising Concerts occurred on Memorial Day Weekend 2015, and they were joined by the newly christened Band of Sweethearts (Jay Bellerose, Jennifer Condos and Eric Heywood, all of whom played on the Meet Me at the Edge of the World sessions).  Funds were also raised online, resulting in a double CD live album documenting the weekend’s shows.

otr_barnBy 2016, enough work had been done to the old barn to allow Over The Rhine to host their most ambitious project yet, the Nowhere Else Festival on the grounds of Nowhere Farm.  Nothing like a typical music festival, the event would host performances by Joe Henry, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Birds of Chicago and Lucy Wainwright Roche, as well as songwriting workshops, guided nature walks and talks by artist Barry Moser.  The barn housed artwork and showcased future plans for the loft, still underway.  It was one the most unique – and most beautiful – events I’ve ever had the pleasure of attending, and it was successful enough to justify repeating Nowhere Else Festival in 2017, 2018 and now in 2019 as well.

So what is this story?  I hope it is that of a band finding a new way to record, perform and live mostly on their own terms, now and well into the future.  By inviting their fans into the process – and finally even inviting them to their home – Karin and Linford have created a blueprint for continuing their work in a way that transcends piling themselves in a van for six months each year.  I’m sure their grandest plans for Nowhere Farm are yet to be realized but by humbly placing their faith in their listeners, hopefully they will be doing this for many years to come.

So… something about a new album?  The backstory feels necessary because it has now been over five years since the release of Meet Me at the Edge of the World (and four years since their third holiday-themed release Blood Oranges in the Snow).  I hope I’ve recounted this history somewhat accurately, often based on my recollections of the lovingly crafted newsletters sent out by Linford over the years. 

Linford Detweiler and Karin Berquist of Over The RhineThe release of Love & Revelation – sent out this week to those who funded it and available generally March 15 – feels like a celebration of sorts, hard won after a few years of victories as well as setbacks.  If it carries that weight with the listener, the album itself bears no sign of such a burden.  In fact, it glides by in 42 minutes with a gentle grace and often light touch.  The first half of the record certainly offers up its share of uneasiness, but during the album’s second half, the tone shifts and lightens and ultimately arrives at some kind of peace.

In recent years, I’ve heard Linford make – or repeat, I can’t recall – the statement that songs are prayers.  In the final verse of his song “Let You Down,” he sings:

And if a song
is worth a thousand prayers,
we’ll sing till angels come carry you
and all your cares.

If this album has a running theme, that might best sum it up (actually, it might as well be the mission statement for Over The Rhine).  Indeed, many of the songs on the record, which leans heavily on Karin’s songwriting, share a cadence not unlike a hymn, repeated appeals for mercy in the face of heartache and uncertainty.  Only on the title track, written by Karin, and Linford’s “Betting on the Muse” (inspired by Charles Bukowski) does the almost beat poetry of previous efforts appear.  The remainder of the album is marked by a particularly spare lyrical style, befitting the overall mood.

Though Joe Henry was unable to produce due to an extended trip to Ireland during the recording, his spirit lingers over the proceedings.  In fact, Karin states in the press materials:

“Joe always used to sign off in his emails and letters with ‘Love & Revelation, JH.’ It was a little blessing he would offer—his wish, I suppose, being that anyone who came into his circle would know love and be open to being surprised. The phrase became important to us, and we asked Joe if we could use it for the name of the record. He quickly gave us his blessing.”

Appropriately, Henry regulars Jay Bellerose, Jennifer Condos, Greg Leisz and Patrick Warren all play on the record, which was engineered by Ryan Freeland (JH’s regular engineer) at his studio in California.  They are joined also by longtime Over The Rhine sideman Bradley Meinerding.  It’s tempting to wonder how this record might be different with Joe’s production, but there’s no doubt that Love & Revelation is a tremendous work, bearing all the hallmarks of the duo’s 30 years’ worth of songwriting and recording experience.

Lastly, you may recall Karin and Linford’s participation in Joe Henry’s 2014 Wild Edges concerts in Durham, NC, where newly written songs were performed for the first time alongside Joe and the Milk Carton KidsLove & Revelation marks the debut of three songs from those evenings:  “Los Lunas” (which opened both shows), “Making Pictures” and “Betting on the Muse.”  If you’d like to read more about those evenings, you find my recap here.  Those shows were recorded by Ryan Freeland but have not been released.

(You can pre-order Love & Revelation from the band’s online store here – orders instantly receive the title track for download.

Tickets to 2019’s Nowhere Else Festival are available here, with additional information here.)

Joe Henry Odds N Ends: Late Spring Edition

It’ll hit 90 degrees in Houston this week, so I figured time was running out to post any Late Spring JH news…

  • As previously mentioned, JH will appear at Over The Rhine’s Nowhere Else Festival over Memorial Day weekend.  You can get a clearer picture of what to expect at the festival’s website.
  • In addition to the new Allen Toussaint record (due June 10), there are several new production projects due in 2016:
    • Chely Wright’s new album I Am The Rain will be released in September.
    • Canadian singer-songwriter Rose Cousins has recorded a new record with JH and will be released later this year (you can pre-order the record from her website to receive it sometime prior the official release).
    • JH’s own website lists a new production from Austrian band Son of the Velvet Rat.
  • Stefan has a terrific new interview with Birds of Chicago, conducted while they were on tour in Europe.
  • JH will appear with Rosanne Cash on June 20 in Los Angeles at an event called Composed: The Intersection of Poetry and Song.  Reservations are closed but you can stand-by for admission on the day of the event.
  • JH will open for Rhiannon Giddens at her date this summer at Prospect Park Bandshell as part of the Celebrate Brooklyn! series (announcement on May 10).
    (UPDATE:  Sorry, this was from 2015 – my mistake.  But if you are going to be in the NYC area in July, why not check this out?)
  • There is an amazing interview with engineer Ryan Freeland, conducted by Steve Dawson for his Music Makers and Soul Shakers Podcast.  Dawson has also interviewed Bill Frisell, Mary Gauthier and, most recently, Marc Ribot.  (Also available on iTunes)
  • And speaking of Ribot, as you may recall, he and JH performed as a duo at the recent Big Ears Festival in Knoxville (read Josh Hurst’s review of the show here).  You can watch much of the performance on YouTube in four parts (see below).

Big thanks to Stefan Vandenberghe for keeping us updated when I am sometimes slacking off!

Josh Hurst reviews Birds of Chicago’s ‘Real Midnight’

birds_of_chicagoI have to confess that I somewhat glossed over the release of Birds of Chicago’s Real Midnight back in February.  Having received the Kickstarter digital copy back in November, it just kind of fell below my radar when it was officially released.  In fact, I really only started spending quality time with the album over the past two weeks, and it is something quite special.

As luck would have it, our old friend, Josh Hurst, has revamped his own website and has just reviewed Real Midnight.  As he often does, he finds the perfect words to describe the spirit of this album.  As you may recall, Real Midnight was the final album recorded at Joe Henry’s Garfield House studio.  Jay Bellerose plays drums on the record, and Rhiannon Giddens provides vocals and fiddle on a couple of tracks.

Also, be sure to check out Josh’s recent reviews of Lucinda Williams’ The Ghosts of Highway 20 and Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Let Me Get By, two of my other favorite releases of 2016.

UPDATE:  Over The Rhine recently announced that Birds of Chicago will be joining the lineup of their Nowhere Else Festival over Memorial Day weekend (see below post for more details).

Also, you should definitely check out their recent Folk Alley Sessions.  Here’s “Remember Wild Horses”…

Look Again To The Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited (out today)

{Ed. note:  Today marks the release of Look Again To The Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited, produced by Joe Henry.  It’s a tremendous record.  Below you’ll find my thoughts on the album, as well as a related book by Antonio D’Ambrosio.}

Bitter_TearsIt’s hard to remember a time when Johnny Cash wasn’t considered a Country Music icon.  Though it’s widely acknowledged that Cash’s influence can be felt across all genres of popular music, he is most closely associated with and embraced by the Nashville establishment.  However, when Columbia Records first signed Cash, freeing him from the controlling hands of Sam Phillips’ Sun Records, the artist was known primarily as a rockabilly artist and had aspirations well beyond his established sound.  Columbia at first seemed supportive of Cash’s vision for his work, but like so many labels before and since, became impatient for hits, regardless of which chart they would land.

In the early 60’s, Cash released a string of albums that favored compositions by songwriters like Merle Travis and Tompall Glaser but strove for a sound that blended country with folk and blues (what we would today call “Americana” for lack of any better description).  Those early records produced hits but also left label execs – and, no doubt, fans – often confounded (Ride This Train featured lengthy spoken word introductions, and The Lure of the Grand Canyon featured only Cash’s narration performed over Ferde Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite).  Cash’s restless spirit and creativity was kicking with full force in the early 1960’s and would lead him down many interesting paths throughout his recording career.

It was during this time that Johnny Cash would find his way to the New York folk scene and, in particular, to the work of songwriter Peter La Farge.  La Farge is not a household name by any means, but it is safe to say that his work is remembered largely thanks to Cash.  While the civil rights movement gained steam in 1963 and ’64, Native American issues began to emerge due to problematic government policies and land grabs that continued the United States’ historic mistreatment of Indians and thievery of their land.  Peter La Farge gave a voice to these issues with a string of protest songs that emerged in parallel with the folk movement’s wholehearted embrace of African Americans’ civil rights movement.  As Johnny Cash (along with several other celebrities) found himself increasingly aware and committed to Native American issues – with demands and circumstances quite different from those of African Americans – the idea formed for yet another concept album, this one sure to cause further tension between Cash and his label.  The seeds of Bitter Tears were sown from a unique set of circumstances, both social and personal, and the record proved to be polarizing and often forgotten among Cash’s body of work.

Heartbeat_Guitar The social, political and musical context surrounding Bitter Tears is wonderfully captured in Antonio D’Ambrosio’s 2009 book, A Heartbeat and A Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears.  D’Ambrosio devotes only a few pages to the actual recording of Bitter Tears (notably, the only time Cash and La Farge spent any significant time together) and instead traces the events and experiences that would lead Peter La Farge to write his songs and Johnny Cash to record them.

Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited was no doubt inspired by D’Ambrosio’s book (he is credited as Executive Producer on the new album), and a forthcoming documentary directed by D’Ambrosio will cover both the original Bitter Tears as well as the tribute album.  However, it was producer Joe Henry who assembled the players and produced Look Again to the Wind, which, in equal measure, is a testament to the talents of both La Farge and Cash (who contributed two originals, “Apache Tears” and “The Talking Leaves,” to Bitter Tears).  Musically, Look Again shares as much (if not more) with La Farge’s original interpretations, which in some cases were nothing more than solo acoustic performances.  As you might expect, Henry did not recruit big-name country stars for the project but rather marquee names from the world of Americana, the genre of music most indebted to Johnny Cash these days.  As Bitter Tears has its roots in the folk scene of the late ’50’s and early ’60’s, it’s only fitting that some of today’s leading lights in folk music – Gillian Welch & David Rawlings and The Milk Carton Kids – provide the musical backbone of most of the tracks here.  Norman Blake, the only living veteran of the original sessions, fittingly contributes a track (as does his wife, Nancy Blake).  Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle represent the generation who most directly inherited the torch from stars like Johnny Cash.  The Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Rhiannon Giddens puts here signature on “The Vanishing Race” (the lone tune penned by neither La Farge nor Cash, but Johnny Horton), and Native American artist Bill Miller casts a spell on the title track (a La Farge composition that did not appear on Bitter Tears).  Kris Kristofferson tackles the indelible “Ballad of Ira Hayes,” still the standout song here (and easily the most widely recognized, as it became a staple of Cash’s live repertoire).

Johnny-Cash-Bitter-TearsThere are many angles from which to view Look Again to the Wind:  a social document, a forgotten gem, a tribute to two singular songwriters or simply a beautiful recording of great songs.  It is, of course, a wonderful tribute to the legacy of Johnny Cash, but by no means is it a “Johnny Cash Tribute Album.”  In fact, the gentle acoustic arrangements will most likely transport the listener to those Greenwich Village coffeehouses where Cash first developed a kinship with New York’s folk scene.  Cash’s next record, Orange Blossom Special, became a big hit (after Bitter Tears was largely ignored by country music radio) but continued the thread with three Bob Dylan tunes.  Johnny Cash was never simply a “folk artist” any more than he was ever just a country, blues or rockabilly artist.  Today, we simply remember him as Johnny Cash, an artist and person who defied easy categorization and transcended comfortable boundaries.  Whether you’re listening to Bitter Tears or Look Again to the Wind, you’ll be reminded why.

(One further personal note:  As an avid reader of music biographies and histories, it’s a rare treat to find a book that also transcends easy categorization.  Antonio D’Ambrosio’s book has found a place on my shortlist of essential music-related reading, thanks in large part to its focus on so much of the social and political environment of the day.  Bitter Tears certainly stands on its own achievements, but D’Ambrosio’s book provides a rich backstory that certainly deepened my appreciation of it. -DK)

Joe Henry news & notes for week ending June 21

jhenry_pic4_lgIt’s another big week for Joe Henry fans, as JH kicks off his brief U.S. tour on Friday at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall.  I’ll be in LA for the Saturday show at Largo (tickets still remain for both sets!).  A few other notes from the past couple of weeks…

  • Many kudos to Stefan for his coverage of the European tour and press stops.  He has even translated several interviews over the course of the tour.  A few great finds from his blog:
  • Here’s a nice preview article by Kimerly Chun in the San Francisco Chronicle.
  • Washington City Paper is giving away tickets to Tuesday’s show at The Birchmere (which will also feature Sara Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion).
  • A very thoughtful review by Walter Tunis in the Lexington Herald-Leader.

I imagine we’ll see a bit more stateside press as the tour kicks off.  If any readers are attending the show in LA, by all means drop me a line and say hi while you’re there.

Joe Henry’s Invisible Hour released TODAY

Well, the big day has finally arrived.  I hope each of you will find much to love about this very wonderful record.  I will say, as someone who has been living with Invisible Hour for a little while, that Joe Henry has once again mined his insights into human nature and uncovered yet another rich vein of understanding about how we love and why we love.  The clarity of his vision never ceases to amaze me.  Nearly a decade since the release of Tiny Voices, Joe Henry continues his uninterrupted winning streak and gives us reason to hope that there are more of his records ahead of us than behind us.

Anyway, a few quick release day notes (while JH is, of course, on tour in Europe):

  • American Songwriter premiered an impressionistic video for “Sign,” surely one of the tracks that will leave an indelible impression on you.
  • If you have heard that song, it will not surprise you to learn that there is a longer form version of that story.  Colum McCann recruited JH to contribute to a collection of essays and stories about “How To Be A Man.”  The collection, The Book of Men, is available now.  Though it will take you less time to read the story than listen to the song, the written version provides a few more clues about the character’s colorful past.
  • A few reviews have trickled in:  Mark Deming of AllMusic has a typically positive and insightful take.
  • UPDATE:  And don’t forget to check out Stefan’s review, as well as his coverage at Time Is A Lion.  He’s especially got great coverage of the European tour.
  • UPDATE II:  A few more reviews rolling in:
  • UPDATE III:  Some press:

With that, I leave you with surely the most ambitious and authoritative word on Invisible Hour, the review by Josh Hurst published a few weeks ago.  Please enjoy your Invisible Hour release day!

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.