Finally the critical notices for Invisible Hour are starting to pour in, and I’m heartened by what they all seem to suggest: That there’s some rare alchemy going on here, signs and wonders unfolding in real time as the record spins. But could I request, perhaps, that we permanently retire the party line that Joe Henry is somehow an unsung and under-regarded singer/songwriter? More and more this line of thinking strikes me as a canard: While he may not be as widely-loved as some of us would like, he is perhaps the most fiercely loved performing musician I know of; those of us who are hip to what he’s doing love the man and his records with crazy, punchdrunk zeal. We would risk life and limb to save his record from a house set on fire; will pass them along to our children, along with the family Bible and grandma’s recipe for apple pie.
The depth of that devotion provides helpful context for the new album, which is that rarest of masterworks: One that offers the easiest entry for novices while offering the deepest rewards for long-time converts. Already there is a clear consensus forming around this as the man’s high watermark, though debates might continue about, say, whether Reverie or Blood from Stars is the better record, whether the clean elegance of Civilians is more rewarding than the anarchy of Tiny Voices or vice versa.* But Invisible Hour isn’t just a milestone for Joe Henry fans; immediately it is the record I will reach for when someone asks me for a Joe Henry gateway drug; I plan on ordering a few dozen copies to have on hand for weddings, bar mitzvahs, and Christmas stockings, as well.
It is welcoming, unfolding its charms immediately but its mysteries over time– is, in short, the best album he has made. It sounds the best. He sounds the best, and seems to be aging in reverse, at least as a singer. His songs have never before danced atop the highwire of being emotionally accessible but also deep, intricate, worthy of meditation and amply rewarding to those who invest some time and devote some engagement.
And finally– because God knows I’ve gone on about this thing, and will continue to– I will say personally that the album has been most moving to me. I invite you to read my essay, linked here, for a fuller appraisal of the album’s themes, but let me tell you that it puts into beautiful and elegant language much of what I hold to be true– in my heart of hearts– about love as action; understanding as the root of compassion, and compassion as the conqueror of fear. It has enlivened my heart and mind as I have weighed my marriage, my parenthood, and my citizenship; is as radical and transformative a political record as you could ask for, precisely it’s made up of love songs, and captures true intimacy as well as any album I could name.
Do I really have to come right out and say it? You should buy it. It’s out tomorrow. It’s spellbinding. And it matters.
* A few of you have asked me, so I will tell you: Tiny Voices will likely always be my favorite album of all time, as it is such a wild and unexpected intersection of so many things that I love, and because it has resonated with me so meaningfully at so many critical junctures in my life– but Invisible Hour is certainly high on the list, in terms of sheer personal preference.