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 knows that the real work of marriage, and the real joy, involves the collision of two independent, willful, frequently selfish human beings, thrown together and destined to sort it out over the course of years and decades. What happens there—that strange and seductive alchemy that transforms and ennobles human lives, at least in the best of circumstances—cannot be summarized objectively, and perhaps can best be approached through the realm of gritty poetry, in words that bear witness to the scars, but still soar. That’s what Joe Henry has delivered on Invisible Hour, his 13th album.
And make no mistake, Joe Henry is a poet. He plays guitar (and guitar only; no piano on this album) and sings, and does his song-and-dance man shuffle, but more than any other contemporary songwriter, his words are luminous and mysterious, shimmering with the possibility of transcendence. Unlike Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks or Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky, poetic confessional singer/songwriter albums with which Invisible Hour can be legitimately compared in terms of overriding lyrical themes and extraordinary musical quality, this one doesn’t end in despair and heartbreak. But the emotional stakes are just as high, the psychic wounds are just as great, and the 11 songs here are just as vulnerable and raw. “Our very blood tastes like honey,” Henry sings on the opening track “Sparrow,” and that arresting image, both alarming and life-affirming, sets the tone for the tales that follow.
Invisible Hour is a folk record—surprisingly so, given Henry’s penchant for the lounge noir blurring of genres that has populated his catalog in the 2000s. Perhaps sensing the need for a different musical treatment given the intensely personal nature of these songs, Henry has stripped the accompaniment back to the bare folk basics: acoustic guitars, mandola and mandocello (with frequent collaborator Greg Leisz adding the filigree) and a restrained but empathic rhythm section. The instrumental star here, however, is Henry’s son Levon, who provides the equivalent of an entire horn section via multi-tracked clarinets and saxophones, and who works entirely outside normal jazz and R&B conventions. His conjuring of a sad, almost funereal mariachi band on the winding ballad “Sign” is a particular highlight. But the focus here is on Joe Henry and the songs. “I want nothing more than for you to hear me now,” he sings on the lovely “Plainspeak,” and Ryan Freeland’s intimate, closely-miked production is intended to facilitate exactly that.
And what we hear, in typical Joe Henry fashion, is the sound of mystery. So much for plainspeak. Although this is an album about marriage, it approaches its subject obliquely, circuitously, and Henry is far too much of a mystic and lyrical maverick to present any of this in a straightforwardly narrative fashion. The songs are full of strange portents: the end of days, the shadow of a hand on a mountainside, ghosts hanging in trees, the dead wandering the land. Time—its relentless passage, its irretrievable nature, its ability to heal and reconcile—haunts these songs in almost every line. The same imagery appears, slightly reconfigured, from song to song. And even when the songs borrow from standard singer/songwriter fare, with verses strung together into something resembling a story, as in the nine-minute epic “Sign,” what we encounter is something more like Dylan’s mid-‘60s surrealism and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical fantasy than journalistic reporting. In short, these songs demand not only that you pay close attention to them, but also that you wrestle with them, live with them for a while, let their disquieting images connect in new and unexpected ways. And when the straightforwardness comes, the effect can be startling. I want you to hear me now, indeed:
I take all this to be holy
If futile, uncertain and dire
Our union of fracture, our dread everlasting
This beautiful, desperate desire
That’s from “Grave Angels,” which serves as an opening salvo for the marital ruminations that follow. And that’s as clear as it gets. What remains are the glimpses of hope, the hard-won victories when victory itself seemed like a phantasmal fever dream, the shaky but growing recognition that the scars are badges of glory. That, and 11 impossibly beautiful songs. Invisible Hour is poetic singer/songwriter fare at its best, and this is Joe Henry’s masterpiece.