The title of Joe Henry’s new album, All the Eye Can See (out Jan. 27), couldn’t be more appropriate. His visionary lyrics and evocative music peer deep beneath the surface of life, into its shadows, to reveal the tentative, often muddled quest for transcendence that’s woven into the fabric of the human condition. Further, the album unfolds cinematically—each song a spacious scene that explores the depths of despair and hope, loss and love, solitude and community.
This one evolved differently than his earlier albums, though. In 2019, he released The Gospel According to Water, and was getting ready to tour behind the album in early 2020. He only got to play three shows before the pandemic closed everything down.
“I understood immediately that I needed to learn how to record myself at home,” he said in a recent interview.
He had recorded his earlier albums live in-studio and still finds the studio the “most inspiring way to work.” Suddenly unable to record that way, however, he had to find a way to maintain his creative momentum. “I wanted to stay creatively active, and to stay close to collaborators who also happen to be some of my closest friends.”
So, Henry—who has produced over 20 albums for artists such as Loudon Wainwright III, Birds of Chicago, Solomon Burke, Mary Gauthier, Rodney Crowell, and Rhiannon Giddens, among others—set out to master ProTools. In the process, he launched one of the most creative, collaborative periods of his career.
“Every time a new song would arrive—and they would arrive in torrents,” he says, “I would immediately record it.” Then he would send the song to his friends and invite them to be a part of it, asking them: “Do you hear yourself on this song? Might you contribute to this song?” The artists would send back their additions to the original track. Over 20 artists—Bill Frisell, Allison Russell, JT Nero, Daniel Lanois, Marc Ribot, The Milk Carton Kids, and others—joined him. The result is an album that is emotionally intimate and musically expansive.
The chamber-folk creates a sonic spaciousness that allows listeners to enter each song and find themselves within it. In some ways, his songs function as meditative tone-poems that invite reflection then move toward an understanding of being in community, in the world. Many of the songs open with a few notes on guitar or piano before other instruments create layers of sound that provide a lush foundation for Henry’s introspective lyrics.
All the Eye Can See opens with a haunting instrumental “Prelude” that is reprised in a penultimate instrumental “Prologue,” both of which feature Henry’s long-time friend Daniel Lanois.
“At a certain point,” Henry recalls, “it occurred to me to invite Daniel to play pedal steel on some of the songs, so I sent him some.”
Lanois told him he didn’t quite hear how he could contribute to the songs. Nonetheless, he sent back two instrumentals and told Henry, “I’ve been playing around with these two songs, instrumental pieces that play off that song ‘Song That I Know.’” Thus, Lanois’s ethereal instrumentals float between the carnivalesque and the transcendent, setting a sonic mood for the opening and closing scenes of Henry’s filmic musical journey.
Dirge-like piano notes open “Song That I Know,” evoking a church atmosphere, before blossoming into more circus-like sound, with noodling accordion runs. By juxtaposing the earthy and spiritual, Henry describes the poetic vocation and the role of the songwriter.
“Since long before Easter put blood in our wine,” he sings. “And still, at the station, they keep me in line / as the song I know sings without me.”
“I am a spiritually connected person,” Henry says, “and I recognize that the spiritual is a rich part of the fabric of most of our lives.”
The spare, spectral “Karen Dalton” conveys a dreamscape that evokes some of the late folksinger’s sonic style. “It was the last song I wrote for the record,” he says, adding that he wrote it while driving through Nebraska late one night.
“I kept reciting it in my head and letting it unspool. I wasn’t writing the story of Karen Dalton, but what I perceived as her spirit. I felt a relationship to her as I was writing, and I saw her face before me as I wrote it. Somehow her spirit was responsible for the song coming to the surface.”
Henry says that the soulful “O Beloved,” which features a transportive saxophone solo by Levon Henry, is a “song in which the character is in conversation with the Creator,” according to Henry. “[It] had its inception in a long, sprawling prose poem I wrote to Little Richard … [and it] uses the same language that [Persian poets] Hafi, Rumi, and Rilke use.”
The title track owes its sonic structure as much to Cole Porter as it does to Woody Guthrie. The folk chords that float beneath the first lines of the verses modulate to jazz chords on the verse’s final lines. The song features a spiraling saxophone solo on the instrumental bridge.
“I am infatuated with that atmosphere of the Great American songbook,” Henry says. “I love a lot of songs that fall into that mode. … I take solitary walks early in the morning and this song came to me. I wrote the entire song in my mind, kept repeating it until I got home, and then found a guitar to see what melody might fit it.”
The album ends with the somber “Red Letter Day,” which he wrote for the film Downtown Owl, an adaptation of the Chuck Klosterman novel. It is an airy, echoing suite of vocals and instruments that celebrates the power of revelation, the memory of loved ones lost, and the inexorable movement of time. Henry’s lyrics capture the many layers of a “red-letter day,” illustrating the meanings of such a time, usually associated with certain memorable moments.
As he ruminates on this, his 16th album, Henry points to Leonard Cohen’s style of songwriting as his inspiration: “This is my center: I’m going to bear down, deeper and deeper.
“How do we live robustly when we know we won’t always be here? How do we keep fear in balance with some sense of hope? How do we align ourselves in community with each other?”
As we enter the musical landscape that Henry painted with All the Eye Can See, we walk with him on his expansive journey, accompanied by a memorable score of soul-haunting songs.
All the Eye Can See is available HERE.