Joe Henry’s The Gospel According To Water is an acoustic, melodic, and eclectic warm root that wraps its deep soul around very vital American folk music.
Let’s face it: Ray Davies summarized modern existence when he wrote in ‘Lola’, “It’s a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world”. And let’s also say that the world has become even more “mixed up, muddled up, and shook up” since he wrote those words a long time ago.
But this album is a wise and quiet eye, a warm eye smack dab in the middle of any hurricane. It’s a record that plants a stake and sings a pretty good truth that simply glances at all the simple stuff of life and magnifies its importance.
Vincent Van Gogh did the same thing.
Ditto for Bruce Springsteen.
This is stripped down Joe Henry. He’s made countless albums with a voice crying from the poetic wilderness, and occasionally, has strayed from a simple folk ethos. Ornette Coleman, Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell, and Van Dyke Parks have graced his records. But this one is just Joe (and a few friends adding piano and guitar with son Levon Henry on slowly-danced sax and clarinet) still crying, this time, from an acoustic forest.
The opening tune, ‘Famine Walk,’ is strummed sincerity. Joe sings, “I looked deep within my blood” with a weary Dustbowl voice, while the melody can inflate what Gordon Lightfoot once called, “a few good secondhand dreams”.
The title tune sings like really decent scripture. There’s a beautiful line that touches testament truth, and talks of a place “where the faithful bring their baskets down and set their children free”. Perhaps, that’s beyond modern GPS navigation.
It’s just a thought, but Joe Henry’s music has always been decent scripture. He elevates the common into metaphorical significance. In his song ‘Odetta’ (from the album Reverie) he once posed the question, “Whose chickens are those in my yard?” I still wonder about that. His lyrics conjure a post-Minotaur labyrinth, a quiet place to wander endlessly, and find, to quote The Band’s song ‘Whispering Pines’, that “the lost are found”.
Ahh – the songs cut a continuous furrow into the dark American soil. ‘Mule’ carves a melody out of tough Midwest sod. It’s a song that balances the space between ethereal dreams and the crashed reality of “trampled beauty” and “silence deep as sound”. ‘Orson Welles’ is slow with a deliberate sax. It’s patient with deliberate sax. Again, it deals with the struggle of duality, as Joe sings, “You provide the terms of my surrender and I’ll provide the war”. There are more acoustic revelations. ‘Green Of The Afternoon’ is plucked and urgent, with a nod to Paul McCarthy’s ‘Blackbird’. And ‘In Time For Tomorrow’ has sublime backing voices that sing, “all the stars that fall as one”, and evokes the warmth of a campfire under a dark night sky.
Now, as stated, The Gospel According To Water, with its sparse instrumentation, is quite different from previous albums. All the songs reflect into each other and produce a continuous meditation, that from time to time, pauses to take another breath, and then dives back, as Joe said, “deep within my blood”.
‘The Fact Of Love’ is that breath of soulful and tough folk music.
Yes, in a very American way, this music touches the desolate beauty of (the great) Richard Thompson. ‘Book Of Common Prayer’ echoes the depth and pathos of ‘Poor Ditching Boy’. That’s high praise. The same is true for ‘Bloom,’ which also mirrors the melodic quality of a nice Dylan tune. This is archetypal stuff that people once drew on cave walls. ‘Gates Of The Cemetery #2’, again, sings doom and gloom and then resurrection, And it’s a bluesy acoustic resurrection, which may well be the best kind of return.
‘Salt And Sugar’ “waltzes in a circle” and gazes at the stony bones of life.
The wonderfully titled ‘General Tzu Names The Planets For His Children’ simply submits to the universe.
The final song, ‘Choir Boy’, returns to the Gospel theme of the record. It’s all a bit like the best of (the previously mentioned) Bob Dylan and The Band, who chicken scratched tunes from the blood, sweat, and turf of America.
This album bleeds salvation. It sings a Congregational hymn. It gambles on a Mississippi river boat. It lives in a sod house. Walt Whitman once wrote, ‘I Hear America Singing’. This album just contributes to that acoustic poetic choir.
Artist’s website: https://www.joehenrylovesyoumadly.com/
‘In Time For Tomorrow’ – official video: