Joe Henry — All the Eye Can See
Some people like beer. Some prefer scotch. Beer goes down easy, of course; but scotch is an acquired taste, something that is best sipped slowly rather than guzzled. But scotch lovers will tell you that it has a richness and depth that few other drinks can match.
Joe Henry is a full-bodied scotch of a songwriter. His songs are complex, full of nuance, and demand to be taken seriously. They reward focus, and continue to reveal themselves on repeated listenings.
And Joe Henry’s new album, All The Eye Can See, is Henry at his finest. It is powerful, moving, and beautiful. It is also morose, sad, and challenging.
All The Eye Can See is Henry’s quarantine album, primarily self-recorded at his home during a phase of worldwide lockdowns. It is at once profoundly personal – Henry has said that ““I know that I have never allowed myself to write and release songs as personal as these now feel to me” – and deeply collaborative. The collaborations were done virtually, with each musician recording their contributions and sending them to Henry to synthesize. That modality – working together, but at a distance – is itself a fitting analogy for the album. The songs on All the Eye Can See are at once intimate and distant.
In addition to his long-time musical partners — Levon Henry on saxophone & clarinet, David Piltch on bass, Patrick Warren on piano & keys and John Smith on acoustic guitar – more than 20 musicians join Henry on All The Eye Can See. Contributors include Madison Cunningham, Bill Frisell, Daniel Lanois, The Milk Carton Kids, Marc Ribot and Allison Russell. Lanois, whose own music is sonically similar to Henry’s atmospheric compositions, composed two lovely instrumentals that frame the album.
Henry’s lyrics, always, but especially on All The Eye Can See, read like poetry. More so than nearly any other songwriter I can think of, his words work just as well on paper as they do set to music. This enigmatic passage from “Yearling” is a prime example:
There’s no rest for the weary now
and never has there been:
seeping so deep in our hearts
it rises from our skin––
smelling of the fires
that steal our dark to day,
standing up before the eyes
we’ve closed upon our way
The ability of Henry’s lyrics to stand on their own is a reflection of the power of Henry’s writing, but it also a reflection of the understated, almost funerial, character of much of the music on All The Eye Can See. Even lovers of sad songs and slow ballads may find that the All That the Eyes Can See is too intense to listen to all at once. It needs to be snipped, not gulped.