The Heart Off Guard: Joe Henry holds on to his hat

the gospel according to water review

Joe Henry provides us with countless invaluable images across his new album, The Gospel According to Water. One of the most poignant is a scene from the title song, where the narrator sits at his windowsill and watches a procession of people parade by; each keeps their hat clutched tightly in hand, guarding against the fitful squall they know must come sooner or later. Henry takes it all in from behind a pane of glass, and sings with the quiet authority of a man who knows what it’s like to have the hat blown off his head. The Gospel According to Water is the 15th Joe Henry album, expanding a rich catalog of songs that reckon with blustery weather by all its various names— cruel fate, ravenous time, fickle providence, the slipstream of mystery. It is also the first Joe Henry album to arrive following a blindsiding cancer diagnosis late last year, each of these 13 songs written in the aftermath of the big shoe’s drop. A cruder man might say that shit’s gotten real, but with Henry there is always a deep reserve of eloquence. “Shadows lead us onward/ the darkness still at play,” he offers in a song called “Mule.” He’s been writing for years about how the dark itself proves a guiding light, how struggle is the mustard seed from which hope springs— and now he’s left with no choice but to believe it. Perhaps it is right to say that these new songs are similar in kind but different in clarity to the songs that came before them; that they hover over familiar concerns but exert a new kind of gravity. They’re songs forged in the refiner’s fire. They’re the sound of rubber meeting the road.

Refinement is a good way to think of this album, though that’s more a matter of happenstance than intention. The entirety of The Gospel According to Water was recorded quick-and-dirty in just two days’ time, initially meant to be a data dump for Henry’s publisher. It wasn’t until he listened back that Henry realized the lucidity with which these recordings speak, the lack of any need for additional polish. They are released here more or less as-is, though anyone expecting the jagged edges of, say, Springsteen’s Nebraska will want to check their assumptions at the door: These songs are beautiful and deep, autumnal in their tone and unhurried in their pace, and they all sound crisp, clean, and complete. The biggest tell to the serendipitous nature of these sessions is the absence of drummer Jay Bellerose, long a fixture of the Joe Henry players; you won’t hear any of his rolling thunder here, but you will hear fleet-fingered acoustic guitar lines from Henry and from John Smith; sparkling piano work from Patrick Warren; understated melodies from reed man Levon Henry, whose smoky sax and clarinet wind through a handful of songs. On two selections, you’ll hear harmonies from the unassailable Birds of Chicago, summoning rapturous soul. There is some of the same loose, brambly spirit that characterized Henry’s previous record, 2017’s feral Thrum, but this one is decidedly less prickly and more serene; the kind of quiet that commands active attention and full engagement.

Ever since Reverie, Henry’s songwriting has moved further from folk traditions and closer to poetic ones, meaning his lyrics aren’t necessarily linear so much as they are impressionistic. The Gospel According to Water feels like a purification of that approach; indeed, there may be no songwriter currently working whose lyrics work as well as standalone poetry (maybe Karen Peris of The Innocence Mission), and Gospel is the rare album that may be best experienced by reading along with the words, where you can see them arranged on the page in neat stanzas. Consider the tidy couplets in “Green of the Afternoon,” which the novelist Colum McCann rightly situates in the mystic lineage of Gerard Manley Hopkins:

I mean to sing of love that goes uncured–
You come to me and silence every word;
You come to me and silence every word…
But what goes unspoken may not go unheard

Henry understands the formal power in such tight, carefully structured writing, which might explain his ongoing allegiance to standards. At least since Scar he’s written songs that sound like tattered pages from the Great American Songbook, and The Gospel According to Water includes some of his most desolate, his most melodically robust. “Famine Walk,” the spindly album opener, sounds like a wee small hours confession from some alternate-universe Frank Sinatra, laid low by grievous loss, hollowed out by a few too many things that didn’t go his way. The sighing “Gates of Prayer Cemetery #2,” with a wistful moan from Levon, could pass as nightclub fodder from the world of Jim Jarmush’s zombie movie (“the dead from here, don’t stay dead long”). But the album’s most distinctive feat of songwriting is “Orson Welles,” a character sketch that belongs in the category with Henry’s previous songs to Richard Pryor and Charlie Parker. This form is associated with Henry in the same way that blue-collar malaise is associated with Springsteen, sexy Bible stories with Leonard Cohen, triple-decker puns with Elvis Costello; his song for Welles isn’t Wikipedia-style recitation but a tender, first-person reckoning with a man who ascended too high and too quickly, and now must make peace with inevitable decline (“if you provide the terms of my surrender, I’ll provide the war”).

There is enormous temptation to consider the album solely in light of its backstory, to hear it as a “brush with mortality” album along the lines of the latter-day Johnny Cash recordings, perhaps Dylan’s Time Out of Mind. But while the songs here are informed by recent trials, they resist any effort to hear them as songs about cancer, nor even songs about death. The larger concern is living in uncertainty, locating a personal center of gravity in a world where there’s never firm footing to be found; following the shadows as they point toward the light. “How is it we’ve held out through all of these rumbling years/ that rush like the wind from our sails in a tumble of tears?” Henry asks in “The Book of Common Prayer,” and it’s a useful framing question for the songs that surround it. For his part, the narrator in “General Tzu Names the Planets for His Children” ascribes titles to the heavenly bodies that spin ever beyond his reach, telling himself he’s imposed order on a vastness untroubled by the vanity of his decrees. In “Bloom,” the singer imagines time as a couple of freight trains, rumbling past him in either direction; he’s left standing at the station, capturing a moment’s clarity in a tumble of romantic verse.

Several songs in Henry’s Gospel employ the language of religious pilgrimage and devotion, though it’s always with a tacit rejection of anything overly dogmatic. “Not all are saved, not all of us care to be,” he admits in “Green of the Afternoon,” dismissing the idea that peace is found in the grip of assurance, asserting instead a kind of contentment found in the quest itself, a surrender to impermanence and uncertainty. Another white flag is unfurled in “Choir Boy,” the gnarled and off-kilter closing song, which includes the closest thing this album offers to prescriptive advice: “Raise your hands above your head and hold the air/ kick your keys in front of you into grass and leave them there/ surrender everything back to the ground.” Sometimes, surrender isn’t entirely optional. The man in “Famine Walk” speaks to “the heart off guard but ever opened wide,” sounding as though he’s been robbed of anything to cling to save his own trembling vulnerability. (“You’ve gotta get taken for everything to have anything to give,” an Over the Rhine song counsels.)

The true Gospel religion is ratified in “The Book of Common Prayer,” where all of us are bound together in acknowledgement of “love and the breach it repairs.” With any luck, a copy of this record will find its way into the hands of Nick Cave, who, following the tragic death of his teenage son, spoke about loss as a catalyst for radical openness, empathy, and zeal for human connection. Like Cave’s Ghosteen, Henry’s album reckons with private catastrophes but refuses isolation; its woundedness points toward the grace and understanding we owe one another, and to how we find our bearings not in relation to the shifting ground but to the neighbors reeling and scrambling alongside us. “In Time for Tomorrow,” ravishing pastoral folk, sounds like a word of resolve from two lovers whose intention is to put their season of bereavement behind, no matter what circumstance dictates. And “The Fact of Love,” so big and dramatic one’s tempted to call it a power ballad, casts its eye to an uncertain horizon before doubling down on love’s invitation here and now. “The hour now is hanging free/ and the stars are still above our heads,” sings Henry. How’s that for good news?

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