Some albums arrive bearing the threat of disappointment heavy in their saddlebags, particularly if they’re by someone you’ve loved for years, someone who matters. A Cohen or a Mitchell, Springsteen or Dylan. Tom Waits and Elvis Costello and John Darnielle too. They’ve all delivered their share of late period disappointments. For every ‘Love And Theft’ there’s a Together Through Life and from the moment The Tree Of Forgiveness hits the doormat I’m on tenterhooks.
It’s thirteen years since Prine’s last album of original material was released and in that time he has undergone surgery for both neck and lung cancer and I’ve undertaken a major reassessment of my list of the best singer songwriters of the last fifty years and Prine, by virtue of his sly dry humour and self deprecating mid-western surrealism has reached the upper tier of the pile.
So it’s a just slightly nervous moment when I set the thing playing but as soon as the first track gets underway, with a slight rush, as if we were walking into a gig in progress, it’s pretty clear that Prine is a man on form. He’s always had a knack for making records that sound like he’s conversing with you personally and the album maintains that feeling of intimacy throughout its length. No attempt is made (as far as we can tell at least) to hide the cracks in the 71 year old Prine’s voice, but they aren’t accentuated for effect either. Think Rubin era Johnny Cash but with less artifice. No sympathy cards being played here.
With a slightly echoey production and intermittent whispers from an unseen audience, most of the time it sounds like your favourite slightly eccentric uncle, the one that smokes and drinks too much now and then and teaches you magic tricks and tells smutty stories to embarrass your mum, sitting in a back room somewhere, or a barn maybe on hay bales, with his buddies and his guitar, chewing the fat and smoking a big one and singing a few tunes, mostly smiling but occasionally getting just a little bit sad.
It’s an altogether sparer collection that 2005’s Grammy winner Fair And Square with Dave Cobb on minimalist production duties and vocal assists from the likes of Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell, but it’s all the better for it, full of sly jokes and homespun wisdom and irony.
There are plenty of changes of mood with a pair of excellent love songs – I Have Met My Love Today and Boundless Love – and two pieces of Prine’s distinctive homespun irony in Egg & Daughter Night and Lonesome Friends Of Science which manages to spin a poetic melancholy out of the decision by the astronomical world to downgrade Pluto to minor planet status leaving the former hero to spend his evenings hangin’ out in Hollywood In some ol’ funky sushi bar rather than with the big guys at the interplanetary dance as he did in his heyday.
When I Get To Heaven is a sort of a sequel to the wonderful irreverence of Jesus The Missing Years, a promise of posthumous debauchery with a honky tonk piano and a room full of people singing along (sounds like it anyway).
“I’m gonna get a cocktail | vodka and ginger ale | I’m gonna smoke a cigarette | that’s nine miles long,”
he promises and the album title reveals itself to be the name of the nightclub that he plans to open up in paradise, (if God lets him, and I think he will). It must get dull up there sometimes. There’s a baby gurgling away in the background and a giggling child and anybody who has ever walked across a supermarket forecourt in the dead of night and heard the strange laughter from the deserted children’s rides will understand how eery that can sound. Nobody delivers a memento mori like John Prine and a room full of children.
Album highlight for my money is the glorious No Ordinary Blue, which should be a staple of live shows for many years to come. It’s a song that shows Prine’s ability to work authentic sounding conversations into songs without straining the language or the metre –
She said, “Well what’re you thinkin’?”
“I’m just a-wonderin’”
“Is it somethin’ that I did?”
I said “It’s nothin’ | Just somethin’ | I picked up as a kid”
and also has my favourite moment of the album –
Last night | For a split sec | I was a train-wreck | I was a complicated guy
I hope we don’t find | This’s the last time | We ever say “Goodbye”
Prine is over in the UK this summer, including a stop at the Cambridge Folk Festival and if the press for the US leg of his current tour is anything to go by these should be the highlight gigs of the year, definitely not to be missed.