Review: Joe Henry returns with varied ‘kind-word blues’ set
“All the Eye Can See,” Joe Henry (earMUSIC)
“There goes the sun,” Joe Henry sings, sounding nothing like George Harrison as he contemplates our long, cold, lonely winter.
“All the Eye Can See” is the most diverse album of Henry’s career, surrounding his acoustic guitar with mysterious sounds ancient and modern. The songs are “kind-word blues,” as one verse describes them, with Henry seeking light in a world dimmed by plague, protests, politics and the death of his mother.
As ever, Henry’s lyrics-as-literature are inscrutable and irresistible, full of word combinations not normally found in a songbook. Ghosts sing, words conspire, mountains fall, and borders bleed and blur. Meanwhile, God laughs.
The album was created largely in pandemic isolation, with Henry shipping skeletal recordings to past collaborators as he solicited contributions. What resulted is expansive, arresting accompaniment involving more than 20 musicians, including Bill Frisell, Daniel Lanois, Allison Russell and Patrick Warren, whose keyboard work is central to the discreet but rich and varied arrangements.
Tempos are all slow to moderate, but no two songs sound alike. “Karen Dalton” would fit Phoebe Bridgers; “Yearling” is closer to Phoebe Snow.
In each case, the music lifts the lyrics. These are spirituals of a sort, mixing pleas and prayers and references to the Old Testament. Fire is everywhere, to be feared but also to illuminate.
One conclusion Henry draws: We’re all in this together. “How did I think this story just my own?” he sings on “Pass Through Me Now.” As the song ends, Frisell’s guitar twinkles, brightening the day.