Joe Henry – All The Eyes Can See (earMusic)

Joe Henry ends the credits to his new release All the Eyes Can See in gratitude for John Prine. The influence of this friendship is discernible: songs with a keen eye for the human condition and in which the lyrics were clearly born well before the melodies.

This is a cycle of songs, signaled by the opening instrumental Prelude to Song. We are then led into Song that I Know, sparse piano keys carrying Henry’s characteristically deliberate voice. By third listen I am hearing more: clarinet, maybe sitar. There is subtle interplay between instrumentation and Henry’s slightly sonorous voice. And lyrics that feel as if they are spoken as much as sung (“oh, I’ve worn this cape/since the dawning of time/since long before Easter put blood in our wine”). Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen come to mind with these songs reaching into deep metaphor and the sinews of the human condition.

Henry is from North Carolina and his songs are not only marked by fine lyrics, but also by fine production and musicianship. The credits speak volumes: Daniel Lanois, and Bill Frissell feature in a long list of contributors. But ultimately Henry is as much a poet as a singer.  Third track, Mission, is near-recited to guitar chords sounding so close that finger movements are discernible, doubtless left in the mix to emphasis the song’s intimacy: (“I knew you in a winter/both strange to my perception/the quiet, blinding storm that fell/to love’s bright insurrection”). If Cohen had never written Suzanne, perhaps this song would have been a contender in that catalogue of classic songs of yearning.

This is music we are unlikely to hear on the radio: song writing in the vein of Bill Callahan that takes one on a journey. For Henry, however, the path is more than secular: at times intensely personal, at others universally spiritual. When the latter is invoked, as in Yearling (“Angel of our mercy now/pull me close to thee/keep me safe from everything/that tries to set me free”),  Henry sings into the tradition of early Bruce Cockburn or the celtic mystic phase of Van Morrison. Not everyone’s cup of tea but, for me at least, it’s altar wine. Give these songs time and they enter ones bloodstream in with understated suggestion and an absence of presumption.

One of the more interesting songs is Karen Dalton, eponymously referencing the folk/country/blues singer who made her mark in Greenwich Village in the 1960s. But her life was scarred by poverty, homelessness and ultimately dying of HIV (“So, catch me if I go astray/or if I run aground/but leave me if I’m falling free/either up or down”). If the John/Taupin tribute to Marilyn Monroe feels  cliched, this is an admittedly less melodic Candle in the Wind for a lesser-known tragic figure in the back catalogue of popular culture.

The title track All The Eyes Can See comes late in the record with disarming lyrics: “Trouble begins at waking/the weight of the world near-breaking/its wave on the heart’s undertaking/of all the eye can see”. As the sax solo tails off, this haunting song seems fitting for these times: part dirge, part hopeful anthem.

This is an album of beauty that insinuates itself into one’s consciousness in the most edifying ways. In Small Wonders, we hear in near-chant  “This is how we love and who we are/ is what we know” and at the song’s close there’s the sound of footsteps walking away. It’s as if he’s leaving us to journey on with the song.

Joe Henry holds up a vivid mirror accompanied by a rich palette of sound. Play this album enough and we may all know a little more of who we are.

Robin Kearns