Joe Henry

The Gospel According to Water

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The Gospel According to Water Review

by Mark Deming

Art is often informed by the life experiences of the artist, and what happens to them can impact their work in any number of ways. In November 2018, the singer and songwriter Joe Henry was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and as he wrestled with the prospect of mortality and the physically and emotionally taxing process of treatment, he practiced his own form of self-care -- he wrote songs, a bunch of them, and then set about recording them at the home studio of a friend and collaborator, recording engineer S. Husky Höskulds. The product of these sessions, 2019's The Gospel According to Water, in many respects sounds like an ordinary Joe Henry album, with his rich voice and smartly crafted lyrics front and center, but the feel is decidedly different. Henry is nearly as well known as a producer as he is as a performer, and in the studio he strikes a fair balance between inspiration and technique. The Gospel According to Water, however, is slightly rough around the edges, the performances sounding committed yet enough in the moment that the occasional flubs are part of the presentation. There's a grain in Levon Henry's reeds that is powerfully effective but also doesn't sound the way a professional session player might. This is music that's languid and thoughtful, yet also possessed of a certain urgency; cut in just two days, these are songs from a man who has learned a bit about the value of time, and while that hasn't made him rush the work, he clearly wants to say his piece while he is able. Henry doesn't obsess over death and dying in these songs, but they wrestle with notions of love and faith with a gravity that's unforced but clearly audible. Initially Henry recorded the material on The Gospel According to Water as demos, wanting to get them down on tape in some form while they were still fresh in his mind, and he was absolutely right to release them in this form rather than giving them a more polished reworking. Though this isn't the cleanest and tidiest album of his career, the emotional honesty of this material is striking, and this is some of the boldest and most inspiring work of Joe Henry's career. Henry was in remission by the time The Gospel According to Water was released, but one can only hope the lessons he learned will continue to be reflected in his future work.

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