Release Date: Jun 3, 2014
Record label: Work Song
Joe Henry doesn’t write love songs, although love suffuses almost every syllable he sings. He writes marriage songs, which are neither dewy-eyed odes to blossoming romance nor tell-all dispatches of domestic warfare, but rather something far more sly and wise and sweet. Forget the silly arguments about squeezing the tube of toothpaste from the top or bottom.
Henry’s stock as a sympathetic, collaborative and in-demand producer continues to rise, recent assignments including Grammy success with Bonnie Raitt, adding dashes of authenticity to Hugh Laurie’s blues excursions, and overseeing Billy Bragg’s Americana-embracing Tooth & Nail. Consequently, there’s an ongoing danger that his own music may be overlooked, but his 13th album ranks among his very best. Accompanied by most of the band he assembled for Tooth & Nail, and recorded in an economical four days at his home studio, Henry’s songs share much with Bragg’s more personal musings on affairs of the heart.
In his liner essay for the album Invisible Hour, Joe Henry writes, "As much as anything, perhaps these are all songs about marriage -- marriage as a verb, not a noun. " Henry's words certainly point to the core of the album's themes; Invisible Hour is a striking, emotionally powerful set of songs that deal with the nuts and bolts of love, for better and for worse, and this music speaks with an intimacy and poetic force that use the beauty of Henry's wordplay and vocals not as empty artifice, but as a tool that makes these tales cut even deeper than they might otherwise. While the songs on Invisible Hour are very much about love, the tone of this album is neither romantic or cynical, but honest, compassionate, and contemplative; these lyrics deal with the power and the fragility of the human heart, and for each song like "Sparrow," in which the love of another is a gift that sustains, there's another one like the epic-scale "Sign," a nine-minute picaresque in which a man searches the world for the feeling he briefly knew as a heartsick schoolboy.
If music is a honed skill, Joe Henry can best be described as a craftsman. Be it as a solo artist, or a producer, whatever Joe Henry does, he does it well. In Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm, Henry helped balance a cohesive narrative about a volatile relationship with some of Mann’s catchiest songs (see “Goodbye Caroline” and “Video”). In his own work, such as 1996’s Trampoline, Henry provided just as much of a foundation for today’s alt-country sound as Whiskeytown, the Jayhawks, Sun Volt, Wilco, and Lucinda Williams.
This hour long, eleven track meditation – ostensibly on marriage however, as with most of Joe Henry’s work, there is much more going on – is an intricately constructed, probably personal song cycle. His 13th solo release is the first for his own label and was recorded over a four day stint in his home studio. It’s a laid back, restrained and unhurried set that features stellar work from some of the finest and most subtle players in the business.
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.