Joe Henry: The Gospel According to Water (earMUSIC) Review | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Sunday, August 9th, 2020  

Joe Henry

The Gospel According to Water

earMUSIC

Dec 06, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


A funny thing about the waterfall pictured on the album cover of Joe Henry's latest album, The Gospel According to Water. At the time of the album's release that waterfall will no longer be there. It's not that it is some old historic photograph of a place long gone, but the waterfalls of Yosemite are the result of snow melt so they disappear in the chill of winter. But like the dead of the album's "Gates of Prayer Cemetery #2," the waterfalls of Yosemite don't stay gone long and always return with the spring thaw.

After a late stage cancer diagnosis last year, Henry pushes back against the blow with a reflective and patient collection of songs. What Henry normally crafts is a bit of a complex puzzle to crack.  His solo work (with over a dozen albums to his credit) has been earmarked by sonic explorations with oblique lyrics that leave much to the listener's interpretation. On the other hand, Henry may be best known for his production of iconic artists where he is expert at stripping away any veneer until only a burnished warmth shines through. He's lent his hand to late career releases from American legends the likes of Joan Baez, Allen Toussaint, Bettye LaVette, and maybe most notably Solomon Burke. So it's fitting that Henry applies his production treatment to his own performance. The Gospel According to Water is as direct a communication as you could expect from Henry. He penned these songs in a flurry of creativity brought about by thoughts of his own mortality.

The Gospel According to Water is by musical accounts spare, though rich in tone and content.  Henry sings and plays guitar and is accompanied by Patrick Warren (piano), John Smith (acoustic guitar), and his son Levon Henry (saxophone and clarinet). The opening "Famine Walk" takes its time to unfold as Henry's steady voice intones, "there is no sound left in these walls." Henry's rumination on unanticipated outcomes continues on the gorgeous title track that follows. The album is of such consistency throughout that it is hard to pick out highlights. That being said, the low orange glow that Levon's sax work provides to "Orson Welles" allows Henry to focus on his most poetic writing on the album. The closing verse of the song is as sharp an indictment of being an unwelcome host to disease as any you will find.

Lest you worry that the album is a depressive affair, nothing could be further from the truth.  Henry's inventory taking on "Bloom" provides for a livelier moment that would sit alongside anything on Dylan's Blood on the Tracks. A vivid sense of hope is also given here: "we stand between the rumbling cars and carry on from here." The sizzle of "The Facts of Love," with soulful harmonies by Birds of Chicago, makes for another affirming moment. Warren's piano adds a hymn-like cadence to the closing "Choir Boy" and Levon joins in as well providing a moving waltz of a song to close things out. Henry pushes the simple chorus to a pinnacle of "please pray for me" that comes not as a command but an open invitation to stand beside him.           

It's not surprising that Henry gives us one of his most straightforward albums in the wake of a devastating diagnosis. When artists are faced with the prospect of war, divorce, death, illness, or other strife, they do what they do what they were put here to do. Create art. Whether that be Picasso's Guernica, Richard and Linda Thompson's Shoot Out the Lights, or in Henry's case The Gospel According to Water, an artist's best work often emerges in the face of discord. What reveals itself most obviously over the course of the album is that Henry performs these songs with an unflagging calm as if he has all the time in the world to script his legacy. Whether we are graced with Henry's presence for another 30 years, months, or days, he has left a rich tapestry of his own music and has lifted up so many other artists as to make his presence everlasting.  (www.joehenrylovesyoumadly.com)  

Author rating: 8.5/10

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Average reader rating: 8/10



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