Fire Note Says: Joe Henry’s 15th album arises out of a dire diagnosis, with reflections on mortality the befit a celebration of life.
Album Review: Joe Henry’s 15th studio album, The Gospel According to Water, is unlike any other record you’ll listen to this year. All but two of the songs were written this year between Valentine’s Day and Father’s Day, after Henry was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer about a year ago. While initially told he only had months to live, he and his wife pursued other opinions, and after treatment he is now in remission. Henry has described being initially paralyzed with fear, immobilized. But in time poetry came, and music followed, arriving in an unprecedented flurry, he’s described. Henry introduced the songs to a live audience at an intimate concert before friends and fans, where he acknowledged his diagnosis publicly for the first time; the show’s announcement included the words from poet Yeats’ tombstone: “Casting a Cold Eye on Life, on Death.”
As Henry’s health began to improve, an interest in recording these new songs developed and Henry was offered some studio time by a friend, engineer S. Husky Huskulds. Henry went in and recorded all 13 songs in one day, with only minimal support, a second guitarist, John Smith, pianist Patrick Warren, and his son Levon Henry who plays reed instruments, clarinet and sax. The songs were recorded with all of them playing together in one room, with microphones scattered around. Henry had assumed these recordings would serve as demos for a later full album effort, but early the next morning he listened to the results, and texted his friend Hsukulds, “I think we have an album here.”
The result is an intimate, literate, and compelling collection of songs, the artist himself in great voice, the songs filled with intricate acoustic guitars, and subtle additions from the other players. Henry’s past writing and recordings have often sought a unique blend of traditional folk songs while interacting with jazz, and that spirit is present here as well. Henry and Huskhuld have pretty much stayed with those original recordings, although Henry brought in a couple other friends, Allison Russell and JT Nero of the band Birds of Chicago, to add harmony vocals to a couple songs, “In Time For Tomorrow” and “The Fact of Love.” There’s a striking resonance and beauty in the sounds of the acoustics as they follow Henry’s unique melodic and narrative flow that curiously matches the warmth and intensity of Henry’s singing voice. In essence, the recording just sounds lovely.
While there is no doubt that Henry’s work here is a reflection of his life after “the shoe dropped.” But Henry told the NYTimes that, “I’m writing about what I’ve always written about. How we stand up to whatever life is asking of us?” So, while the songs tend to address many of life’s ultimate questions, the challenge of facing one’s mortality, they are anything but morbid. “I’m not writing about the cancer,” explained Henry. “This is the black earth out of which these songs have grown, but like any living thing, they’re reaching toward light.”
Spirituality has played a role in songs by Henry in the past, and that remains true here. In “Book of Common Prayer,” a title borrowed from the Episcopal but its emphasis is on the things we hold in common as human beings this side of the mortal coil. “How is it we held out for all of these rumbling years/That rushed like the wind from our sails through a tumble of tears/We stand now holding our love and the breach it repairs/And binds us together with the thread of our most common prayer.” “Orson Wells,” filled with sultry saxophone, returns often to this line, “You provide the terms of my surrender and I’ll provide the war.” “Mule” describes the dressing up of animals of burden to walk in a parade, but seeks a deeper truth, “A silence deep as sound.” In “Green of the Afternoon,” he sings “You swallow up the sun just like the sea/You take the peace of God away from me/You take the peace of God away from me/Not all are saved, not all of us need to be.” Yet in the opening, “Famine Walk,” written to describe a walk cut through the barren landscape made by victims of the famine in exchange for food, which Henry suggests became an apt metaphor for his journey through this time, where he finds “The heart of God lies ever open wide.”
Other metaphors show up repeatedly, the abiding presence of water, and the idea of flower or plant struggling to bloom, turning a reflection on mortality into a celebration of what fills life with meaning. In the song titled “Bloom,” Henry sings, “There’s little we can leave that will truly mark this earth/But treachery and love our ours to keep for all their worth/The flower of our eyes it is a bloom blood-dark but clear/If you hold it in your open hand to carry on from here.” Joe Henry has had a fine career, if not a household name. Besides his own albums he’s worked with T Bone Burnett and gone on to produce albums with Bonnie Raitt, Elvis Costello, Rhiannon Giddens, Over the Rhine and many more. Surprisingly, his best known song may be a co-write with Madonna, who just happens to be his sister-in-law. Her hit “Don’t Tell Me” is based on his original song, “Stop.” Henry has won three Grammy’s for albums produced for Carolina Chocolate Drops, Solomon Burke, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. So, obviously Henry has already left a significant mark in the musical world, but when it comes to legacy, there’s little doubt that The Gospel According to Water will be among his greatest, if not the greatest achievement of an already storied career.
Key Tracks: “Bloom” / “The Fact of Love” / “Orson Wells”
Artists With Similar Fire: T Bone Burnett / Over the Rhine / Bill Malonnee
Joe Henry Website
Joe Henry Facebook
– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb