"It wasn't peace I wanted," sings Joe Henry at the onset of his quietly fantastical new album, Invisible Hour. "So it wasn't peace I found."
Such rumination could be said of his entire career. A onetime Americana ambassador, avant-pop stylist and go-to producer (whose clients have ranged from Allen Toussaint to Mose Allison), Henry has shed musical skin with nearly every recording, moving from alt-country confessionals to scorched abstractions with story lines as expansive as they are impenetrable.
Invisible Hour is perhaps the most relaxed and subdued of Henry's 13 albums. The theme that binds its 11 songs is love, which might not seem like much of a revelation. But the vantage points these songs take possession of are what make the recording so arresting.
Conventional pop thinking dictates that modern love songs approach their subject matter from one of two extremes — the seemingly blissful sense of discovery that marks the beginning of a relationship or the scorn and unfaithfulness that trigger its demise and inevitable fallout. Henry has taken the middle ground to explore love as both a constant and a mystery. In other words, Invisible Hour's unifying topic is marriage.
Then again, the record isn't some guidebook to domesticity. There is gospel imagery at work on the album-opening Sparrow ("my eye is on the sparrow, but she looks the other way") as well as a reference to the end of days. Not exactly lovey-dovey stuff. Yet love endures ("I wait for one grave angel, and I know she waits for me"). That, of course, leads into a song called Grave Angels, in which two enjoined souls brave "love's growling weather."
Invisible Hour doesn't seem to address conflict directly, even though it never seems to be far at bay. "The loss of love one day may bear me out and away," Henry sings later on the album. "But let's be clear, my streaming volunteer, I want nothing more than you to see me now." Somewhat ironically, the title to this open-ended ode is Plainspeak.
As always, the musical palette Henry chooses for his songs makes or breaks the mood. For Invisible Hour, the songs sound mostly like summer serenades. They use light, airy and patiently paced acoustic settings with subtle jazz colorings from son Levon Henry (on clarinet and saxophone), folk atmospherics from Greg Leisz and John Smith (on various guitars and mandolas) and subtle, otherworldly rhythm from one of the most distinctive drummers on the planet, Jay Bellerose.
Don't mistake the results as some sort of valentine. Like love itself, the music of Invisible Hour is never obvious. But the mix of aloof contemplations and sunny soundscapes greatly freshen the perspective of modern love songs while enhancing the indefinable emotions that summon them.
walter tunis, contributing music writer