All the Eye Can See
3 out of 5 stars
In many respects, listening to a Joe Henry album is like watching an art-house film; usually a rewarding experience but absorbed and experienced at its own deliberate pace.
That has been singer/songwriter/producer Henry’s direction for much of his 30-year career, although the approach has become more pronounced in the past decade. This, his pandemic-recorded project, delivers more of those laconic, meditative and pensive qualities with one major difference. Instead of working side by side with musicians in the studio, Henry laid down his basic acoustic guitar parts, then sent those for others, many others, to overdub their submissions/enhancements/instruments. That has become a commonly accepted practice during COVID times, and it works particularly well here.
The result is an album even more contemplative, some may say brooding, than those preceding it.
Henry loves his words and there are plenty to chew on—six tiny font typewritten pages of ‘em in the included book—infused throughout these 13 tracks (two are instrumentals). They read like exquisitely written, if somewhat vague, poetry that’ll take multiple plays/readings to unravel, and even then most listeners won’t be able to grasp what Henry is saying. There were ghosts to follow/there were many of them singing/with words that failed to mention this/a song without an ending from “Mission” is one small example. Regardless of what anyone takes away from these plaintive stories, Henry delivers them with his usual gravitas and passion. He knows what he is trying to communicate … your facility to comprehend that may vary.
Musically these ballads, and they are all ballads, are intimate, lovely, detailed, immaculately constructed, and conceived. Some are enhanced by strings, stand-up bass, occasional and very subdued electric guitar (courtesy of veterans Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot among others), backing vocals, and sax from Henry’s son and longtime sideman, Levon Henry. Over 20 musicians contribute, but information on who performed on what tune is missing, seemingly by design. It is however frustrating.
Each track shimmers and glistens with Henry’s emotionally laced spoken/sung voice, gorgeously understated instrumentation, and concepts that feel weighty and inspired even if their exact meanings aren’t clear. Melodies float and hover and there is an occasional chorus … but often not. Henry has long ago abandoned anything as obvious as a hook.
Listening in one sitting can get tedious since few tempos rise above a muted whisper. Individually the songs play like scenes from that indie movie. Curious, stimulating, and worthy of pondering … if you’re in the mood.
Photo by Keith Griner/Getty Images