[30 June 2014]
If music is a honed skill, Joe Henry can best be described as a craftsman. Be it as a solo artist, or a producer, whatever Joe Henry does, he does it well. In Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm, Henry helped balance a cohesive narrative about a volatile relationship with some of Mann’s catchiest songs (see “Goodbye Caroline” and “Video”). In his own work, such as 1996’s Trampoline, Henry provided just as much of a foundation for today’s alt-country sound as Whiskeytown, the Jayhawks, Sun Volt, Wilco, and Lucinda Williams. His latest, Invisible Hour, (his 13th studio and first solo-released album), was recorded in four days. The recording time is the only rushed element on the album. For more than an hour, songs slowly unveil themselves. The acoustic guitar arrangements have a soft delicacy that meshes with Henry’s dense lyricism.
Lyrically, Invisible Hour is a mother lode. In his liner notes, Henry writes the songs are not necessarily about marriage, but instead about “the redemptive power of love in the face of fear upon which this house is built.” In “Swayed,” Henry declares “He cannot be seduced cannot be saved ... / I hang ready to be swayed.” Blood, salt, ghosts, and visuals such as a sour engine room set up residence for most of Invisible Hour. Henry’s voice draws out the syllables as if they were fishing lines. And while none of the tracks on the album are especially complex or labored, each one feels a revisit will be in order as soon as it ends.
For Joe Henry fans or any fan of rich, affecting songwriting, nothing guitar or singing-wise will offend on Invisible Hour. The only major element that invites frustration for a listener is the use of woodwinds throughout the album. Levon Henry (Joe’s son) contributes clarinet and saxophone. For such a minimalist album, this addition can add a much needed element of warmth, but too often, the arrangements feel tacked on to a finished product.
Invisible Hour can be as seemingly impenetrable on first listen as Tool’s monolithic Lateralus, Guided By Voices’ Alien Lanes, or Miles Davis’ Dark Magus. You’re not going to find a hook to grasp onto on first listen. It’s not an album that can be idly listened to while you’re at work or multitasking in your home. What Invisible Hour demands, almost stubbornly so, is your full attention for its 60 minute duration. And despite its lack of concrete melodies and occasional unnecessary musical accompaniments, Invisible Hour more than earns this investment.