Joe Henry: Unspeakable, the Collected Lyrics of Joe Henry 1985-2020

Joe Henry is an American musician and songwriter with an impressive discography stretching back to his 1986 debut Talk of Heaven through to his most recent, All The Eye Can See (2023). Around the time of album Trampoline (1996), Henry was not only heralded as an impressive songwriter and musician but also objectified in British glossy magazines as something along the lines of stylish and well-dressed crumpet, with accompanying swooning from editors and readers.  This did not appear to go to his head, and to his credit Henry has avoided the machinations and drama of celebrity.

Henry is also an award-winning producer, having produced albums for Solomon Burke, Allen Toussaint, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Bonnie Raitt and Bettye LaVette amongst others. He also worked with Billy Bragg on a joint album, 2016’s Shine a Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad and co-authored (with his brother, David Henry) an interesting book on comedian Richard Pryor, Furious Cool (2014).

Henry’s song lyrics have recently been published by Nazraeli Press as Unspeakable: The Collected Lyrics of Joe Henry, 1985–2020 in two formats – a hardback first edition of 1,000 copies printed on natural matte art paper bound in deep green cloth with a black quarter binding and a special edition of 250 copies, numbered and signed by the artist and presented in a custom cloth slipcase.

Henry says in the forward to the book that he began his writing life with poetry, though keenly aware from the beginning that what he was striving to do was write songs. Followers of his music career will be aware that Henry is a decidedly literate songwriter, with music spanning multiple genres including folk, jazz, blues, and rock, sometimes heading into the realms of the great American songbook.

He also says in the forward that his lyrics are not songs on their own but require the animation of music, and the verses are not poetry “despite their silent appearance in stanzas on a page — though they have all been steeped in and informed by poetic invention”. Despite this, the lyrics stand out as being poetic: the black bird reverie in the song “Unspeakable” (from where the title of the book is derived and on Henry’s 2011 album Reverie) sings an “unspeakable song”. “Time Is A Lion” (Civilians, 2007) opens with:

If you fear the angels above while you sleep
then I’ll be the blood you paint on your door —
your dream is a worry that nothing will keep
but time is a story and there will be more.
Your dream is a worry that nothing will keep
but time is a story and there will be more

On the Broken Record podcast (13 October 2020) Henry spoke of his interest in storytelling through song, and this is evident throughout this collection. There’s fires, fireman’s weddings, hurricanes, plane crashes, dancing lessons, playboys, men with hats, baseball stars, fallen cowboys, soldiers, jazz musicians, Australian businessmen, comedians, lovers and angels. The stories are sometimes non-linear, sketched out moments and fragments of time, cinematographic like the movie being shown on the side of the bank in “Heaven’s Escape (Henry Fonda On the Bank of America)” (Reverie, 2011). They spring from admirable 2D on the page to inescapable 3D with music; the sum effect is that the song (as per Henry on the same podcast) “appears like weather and changes the day – there is no defence against it”.

Henry’s wife has said that she thinks her husband is a “Southern writer” (Broken Record podcast); perhaps this is because of the detail and colour in the songs, and the thoughtful, slowly paced approach. The songs often give the characters time to tell their stories; the years run “as if for their lives” in a song like “Sign” (from 2014’s Invisible Hour), moving from birth to childhood to this memorable early adulthood:

I was wild at twenty-three,
my burning mind turned to the sea —
in a sour engine room
of a war ship, hoping war came soon,
I spent my rage in tiny towns
wherever we might run aground;
and every face that met my eye
was calling on some wish to die;
but if I stood and drank alone
well, then that wish became my own

Each chapter of the book begins with an impressive photograph taken by Henry, the book organised by album, from 2019’s The Gospel According to Water to 1986’s Talk of Heaven. Ordering the albums in reverse chronological order is perhaps surprising, but there’s something to be said for this approach – the more one reads, the further one goes back in time. Henry says in the forward that working on this project made him feel like an archaeologist “excavating bones” but “there is DNA within the earliest of these lyrics that is consistent with that found in the latest”. This is undoubtedly the case; there’s a sense of this being (mostly) one person’s work, even when flipping through the pages at random.

The last section of the book is devoted to songs written for and/or with others including Heath Cullen, Lisa Hannigan, Chely Wright, Mose Allison, Rhiannon Giddens, Solomon Burke, Madonna, Laurie Mayer, and William Orbit. Some of these songs can be found on other artist’s albums – for example “You’ve Changed My Mind” on Bonnie Raitt’s 2016 album Dig In Deep or “Hope Against Hope”, written by Henry with Jakob Dylan for Roseanne Cash, and performed on her 2003 album Rules of Travel. Inclusion of these songs may well spark the reader’s interest in seeking out the work of other artists – let’s just say we’re non-exclusive.

Nazraeli Press, who have published over 600 titles on fine and applied arts, have beautifully transposed the songs to the pages of this book. It’s a fitting tribute to a masterful songwriter; as Elvis Costello has suggested (in relation to one of Henry’s songs, “Mule”) you should “make room in your life for some beauty like this”.

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Publisher: Nazraeli Press
Release Date: 20 JUN 2022