When a relatively major artist/producer decides to record a raw stripped-down LP ala Springsteen’s “Nebraska,” it’s probably a labor of love rather than a straight-ahead commercial endeavor. But, Joe Henry, diagnosed with prostate cancer (in remission) obviously wanted to say something with special ingredients. Here, the 4-time Grammy winner’s 15th LP uses a few friends to slap together a 13-track demo collection that shaped itself into a more magical LP than expected.
The Gospel According to Water, (earMUSIC) – begins with the spare “Famine Walk,” written prior to Joe’s diagnoses. He was inspired by a 2018 walk on the West Coast of Ireland. He strolled with locals on the Famine Walk. A road the victims of the Great Famine (1845-9) created through the mountains in exchange for a bowl of soup.
The title track opens with a stunning acoustic guitar. Many songs are not bleak, but they do tip-toe around dark themes mixed with tangy optimism & romance. A rich voice with tonal brilliance. Like his peers – Joe mines a rare form of song. He’s not John Prine, Richard Thompson, Leonard Cohen, or Don McLean but Joe Henry — that’s an original style developed over 30-years.
While economical each song features a poignant instrument (I believe clarinet here) along with Joe’s acoustic guitar/vocal. The songs bloom like early morning flowers. “Mule,” is mystical, a fairy-tale quality & lullaby drive.
“Orson Welles,” is beautifully anchored by gentle piano, breathy saxophone & according to friend Jackson Browne, it’s a love song. It’s a song of resistance, defiance, belief & survival: a powerful line: “you provide the terms of my surrender; I’ll provide the war.”
“Green of the Afternoon,” is reminiscent of the melodies & guitar of the late Nick Drake, as well as, the achingly beautiful songs of the late John Martyn. “In Time For Tomorrow,” like Drake, is shaped by sadness yet sung & played with grace & charm. The listener won’t hear it as bleak, mournful or somber. The addition of backup singers offers cheerfulness.
Songs of a man facing a peril. Or, a man who offers listeners a reason to prevail?
An interesting guitar approach has Joe’s big toe dipped into Nick Drake’s melodic pool again: “The Fact of Love,” adds Joe’s special enrichment.
The only misstep: “Book of Common Prayer,” shares a similar melodic groove too close to Willie Nelson’s cover of John Hiatt’s song “The Most Unoriginal Sin.” “Bloom,” returns Henry to his proper niche. “Gates of Prayer Cemetery #2,” – as creepy as the lyrics are is cool, recorded with atmosphere. I like how Joe pronounces his lyrics, adds a blues undercurrent, a spiritual mist & a real nice jazzy feel.
“Salt & Sugar,” concludes in reliable “Nebraska,” style. The velvet curtain slowly closes to polite applause, but it will be the performance that remains in the ears as the audience exits.
Most LPs are pretty & look heavy but are really just foam bricks. Joe Henry’s latest LP is spare but solid. Solid as a brick.
Produced by Joe Henry. CD is available at Amazon https://www.joehenrylovesyoumadly.com/