Just beneath the shadows of death and the ravages of suffering lie glimmers of light that shine sometimes with blinding force and sometimes with flickering uncertainty. We all face moments when we gaze into the darkness, hoping we can see these rays of light, searching for the balance between these forces in our souls and bodies. On The Gospel According to Water, Joe Henry delivers sparse, poetic, and illuminating songs that embrace the darkness — in Henry’s case a cancer diagnosis and the initial uncertainty about how to live into it — and discover the many facets of life that shine in the light.
Henry creates a spacious atmosphere on every song on the album; many tracks feature only Henry’s vocals and cascading acoustic or electric guitars. He creates an intimacy and a closeness even in the spare enormity of the sound. On “Mule,” for example, his son Levon Henry’s clarinet slithers around his and John Smith’s acoustic guitars and his vocals, creating layers of escalating sound and mimicking the lyrics of the refrain: “Shadows lead us onward where the darkness is still in play / Holding us with silence deep in sound.”
“In Time for Tomorrow” opens with a somber call and response between clarinet and guitar before opening into Henry’s vocals that speak of the ravages of time as well as the joyful memories we carry with us through time. The song evokes the shadowy experience of focusing too much on tomorrow, thereby losing the brightness of today and the illumination of the past. The Birds of Chicago (Allison Russell and JT Nero) elevate this song — and “The Facts of Love” — with their expansive vocals.
“Bloom” opens with bright chords and blossoms into vocals that evoke the struggle between immateriality and materiality. We embrace the fleeting nature of all things even as we grasp momentary certainty in our hands: “There’s little we can leave behind to truly mark this earth / But treachery and love are ours to keep for all they’re worth / The flower of our rising is a bloom blood dark but clear / You hold it in your open hands but carry on from here.” Just in those few lines, Henry offers a little lesson in songwriting, illustrating the ways that complex themes arise out of the juxtaposition of opposites: love and fear, open and closed, treachery and love, dark and clear.
In many ways, The Gospel According to Water is an album of transcendent musical moments. The breathy vocals, the melancholy sax and clarinet, the hard acoustic plunk, and the rippling piano at the end of “Gates of a Prayer Cemetery #2,” for instance, each sustain individual power to move listeners. The raw beauty of Henry’s poetry carries us into darkness and light, and The Gospel According to Water is a stunningly evocative journey of the soul in search of itself and how to live with love in a world often falling apart.