All The Eye Can See is Joe Henry’s sixteenth album and follows 2019’s The Gospel According to Water and the recent publication of Henry’s lyrics by Nazraeli Press in Unspeakable: The Collected Lyrics of Joe Henry, 1985–2020.
The album was made during the COVID-19 pandemic, and according to Henry the songs sprung out of our shared and traumatic experiences of the recent past and the present-day responses to them; as well, he considers that he has previously never allowed himself to write and release songs as personal as these feel to him.
All The Eye Can See is framed by two gently mysterious instrumental pieces, a prelude and prologue, adapted from and for the second track, “Song That I Know”, an equally enigmatic piece of music enhanced by Levon Henry’s alto clarinet, where “winners get taken apart in their rooms/as cities burn down by the big harvest moon”.
All songs were written by Henry (“Song That I Know” with Heath Cullen) and are consistently literate in character. “God Laughs” asks “who gave the dark such power to sing, the black bird in the heart taking over?”, with Henry’s vocal echoing the highs and lows of life. “Mission” (written for the Butcher and Anneke) opens by poetically setting the scene for what’s to come later on in the song – “I knew you in a winter/both strange to my perception/the quiet, blinding storm that fell/to love’s bright insurrection”; it goes on to discover “the moon in every story/where god lives in all directions”.
Time and the natural world feature strongly in “Mission” and elsewhere: the chorus of “Red Letter Day” plaintively insists that the time is now. “Yearling” takes a walk into the woods with an acknowledgment of getting older; the mother in the reflective “Near to the Ground” counts her scars “like the rings of a tree”. “O Beloved” addresses its subject “as if you were Time, and I was the tree you crawled like a vine”, seducing with sweeping orchestration and saxophone.
The album is stated to be “in gratitude for the life, songs, and friendship of John Prine”, and ghosts of friends and family seem ever present; ’60s musician Karen Dalton (in the song of the same name) is obliquely referenced as we “slip the reach of those singing out aloud”, and ancestors seems close by in “Pass Through Me Now”.
Subtlety is key – the understated approach permits the album to be emotionally intense without being overbearing. “Kitchen Door” is quietly spiritual in its domestic setting, with the refrain that “I’m everywhere, my love, that you can find”. “Small Wonder” creates a sense of marvel through a collision of instrumentation and unexpected sitar (Marc Ribot). The standout title track carries the weight of the world with minimal accompaniment and a charismatic saxophone solo perfectly suited for the moment.
Recorded around the world – America, Ireland, France, Wales, Canada – about 20 or so musicians contributed to All The Eye Can See, with a core band of David Piltch (acoustic and electric bass), Patrick Warren (piano, pump and church organs, Dulcetone, keyboards and orchestral arrangements), Jay Bellerose (drums and percussion), Levon Henry (tenor and alto saxophones; alto clarinet), John Smith (acoustic guitar) and Daniel Lanois (Wurlitzer, organ, electric bass, and pedal steel).
There’s also a wide range of artfully blended instrumentation including Celtic harp (Floriane Blancke), violin (Tony Trundle/Daphne Chen), Acetone organ (Tyler Chester, who also adds electric bass and piano) accordion and cello banjo (Francesco Turrisi), sitar guitar (Marc Ribot) and some impressive work by guests including Keefus Ciancia (piano), Madison Cunningham (vocals and electric guitar), Bill Frisell (electric guitar). Further vocals ae added by Lisa Hannigan, JT Nero, Allison Russell, Rose Cousins and The Milk Carton Kids’ Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale. This community of musicians expertly serves the songs, but Henry continues to plough his own furrow with a distinctive artistic vision.
Available on CD (Digipak) 2LP (Gatefold), stream and download.
Release Date: 27 JAN 2023