Joe Henry and Friends Collaborate on the Enigmatic but Satisfying ‘All the Eye Can See’
I love the way the songs on Joe Henry’s latest album refuse to give up their mysteries, how the melodies wander like question marks, how the lyrics thread a thin line between knowing and unknowing. How the tunes can start with the simplest acoustic guitar arpeggio, played with all the warmth of a 1930s Gibson, then give way to accordion, banjo cello, Celtic harp, clarinet, classical guitar, electric guitar, electric sitar, pedal steel, piano, pump organ, string section, tenor saxophone, upright bass, violin, Wurlitzer, or whatever unlikely choice turns out to be the perfect counterweight to all this intimacy.
All the Eye Can See
“Trouble begins at waking,” Henry sings on the title track, “the weight of the world near-breaking/its wave on the heart’s undertaking/of all the eye can see.” It’s as solid as earth and as liquid as water, and if there’s an answer hiding inside the song, something about life, death, love, God, or all of the above, the closest Henry comes to revealing it is the weariness in his voice and the sweet sadness in his son Levon’s sax solo, a 30-second summation of plangent, shapeshifting acceptance. Some songs, like the confessional “O Beloved,” start simply enough before expanding to include time, home, the world, “bedclothes roiled by the tide,” “faces in cupboards,” and “horses awake in their stalls.” Others, like “God Laughs,” deftly avoid finding their footing, rolling between waves and closing with a sailor’s prayer to “come clean/with all that we mean/and all that we need now to cling to.”
Henry’s guitars—a 1929 Martin 0-28, 1931 Gibson Nick Lucas Special, 1931 Gibson L-00, 1932 Gibson L-0, 1935 Gibson L-00, 2014 Martin HD-28VS, 2019 Collings 00042, and 2020 Collings 0002H Custom Traditional—have never sounded better than they do here, lovingly recorded at home. They cover a broad range of vintage tones, and they’re beautifully complemented by Madison Cunningham, Bill Frisell, Daniel Lanois, Marc Ribot, and John Smith, whose guitar parts come together for one more pandemic miracle: Henry’s most complex, most nuanced, and ultimately, most satisfying album yet.