BY ERIC SWEDLUND
The thing about Joe Henry is after a few records, you start to wonder where the hell everyone else is. Maybe it’s because Henry is a chameleon, hiding in plain sight as a Grammy-winning producer. Maybe he got tagged alt-country and abandoned there. Maybe, as a nearly 20-year-old review suggested, Henry is burdened by an “idiosyncratic broadmindedness.”
Henry’s songsmithing is indeed broadminded. His abilities have never been confined in a tight little circle. What Henry does musically is never the same record to record, there’s always a new revelation hiding somewhere along the way.
In the case of Invisible Hour, Henry’s latest revelation lies in the effortless way his songs form a symbiotic path through the record. Here’s a record that Henry states outright is “songs about marriage.” So, even anticipating a complexity to the lyrics, Henry’s songwriting stands out as fascinating, literate and personal (without the weary self-serving that characterizes too many others). His insights drop on listeners like clues in a mystery, building on one another along the way, revealing a bit at a time.
“It wasn’t peace I wanted, so it wasn’t peace I found,” sings Henry on the 7-minute opener “Sparrow,” a song that frames the album’s themes of searching, of the balance needed in life and relationships.
“Invisible Hour” finds Henry torn between a sort of nasty-brutish-and-short pessimism and a testimony to the powerful influence people can have on each other: “We all come into this world scared and bare and blue and cold / We all bring the knife we need to sate our mouths and not concede / The love that stands a moving bridge, where blood moves under skin and bone.”
Desire figures heavily into “Swayed,” its recollections of better times fading in a metaphor of bruised fruit rotting on a lawn. “He who cannot be seduced cannot be saved / and I hang ready to be swayed,” sings Henry, the hunger in his voice calling for newness and escape.
“Lead Me On” is perhaps the album’s standout track, its folk guitars dancing sprightly together, with Lisa Hannigan’s harmony vocals like a bright halo encircling Henry. It’s a song of trust and vulnerability, that intertwining selflessness of truly opening yourself up to another.
The album’s arrangements and standout musicianship – including pedal-steel and slide guitarist Greg Leisz and Henry’s son Levon on clarinet – is a reminder that Henry’s extraordinary production work is second to none. The Grammy touch that has tended to find partners in the likes of singular, veteran performers like Solomon Burke, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Billy Bragg, Mose Allison, Loudon Wainwright III and Bonnie Raitt works marvelously well with his own talents as a songwriter.
Henry’s 13th album, Invisible Hour sits strongly alongside his latest works, the remarkable trio of Reverie, Blood from Stars and Civilians. His “broadmindedness” is seen in the eclectic bounces he’s made from album to album, jazzy here, rootsy there, bluesy around the corner.
“Love may challenge all our senses,” sings Henry on “Every Sorrow.” So too does Henry himself, trailing rich rewards for those lucky enough get it.