Bonnie Raitt’s comparison of John Prine to Mark Twain seems apt on many levels. Both are singular American storytellers and ironists, with wits sharper and stranger than their peers. Although this is not always the case, Prine’s music feels humble and unassuming. Nearly 50 years into his career, the role he now assumes in the canon of American singer-songwriters is similar: the one who influences and mentors the people who make the hits, a “cult favorite” whether that describes the situation totally accurately or not.
In reality, Prine is a far more complex and contradictory voice than he’s usually given credit for being, and his genius is more formidable. His songs project a distinctly Midwestern, no-nonsense attitude, but they juxtapose poignant realism, hallucinatory parables, and non-sequiturs, the latter inserted to point out the absurdity of the enterprise. His deepest observations may come as throwaways in some shaggy-dog story, and his silliest lyrics may be set to some of his most beautiful music (see, for instance, Bruised Orange’s “Sabu Visits The Twin Cities Alone”).
The Tree of Forgiveness, Prine’s first album of original songs in nearly 13 years, attempts to compress the contrasts he has exploited throughout his career into one concise package. It has a certain plaintiveness befitting a late-period statement in a legendary artist’s career, channeling the wistful selections on his more chintzily produced ‘90s albums The Missing Years and Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings, and 2005’s understated Fair and Square. The more brutal character sketches of his early albums (including his most revered song) have been marginalized in favor of more cosmic platitudes and comic dalliances. There’s no prestige-y veneer (think Rick Rubin’s American Recordings) to soothe the homespun quality of these recordings. Instead of surging string sections, there are faint Mellotron warbles and hints of slide guitar, often courtesy of Jason Isbell. If this record wasn’t actually made in a living room, it could have been. The album’s slightly roughshod quality channels the creative process behind it. Many of the songs are leftovers from past writing sessions finished up (for instance, the Phil Spector co-write “God Only Knows,” which dates back to 1977) and more recent, eccentric musings committed hastily to tape.
Every story Prine tells about himself these days draws the image of the real John Prine with the average-joe narrators in his songs. As if workshopping a lyric, he claimed during his recent Tiny Desk Concert that he only recorded his new album on Tuesdays, because “that’s when they serve meatloaf” in Nashville (Prine’s interest in the city’s meatloaf specials is borne out by a tidbit from a recent biography). The songs on The Tree of Forgiveness reify this fictional version of the contemporary Prine, eating pork and beans on his porch and thinking back on lost time. Many great country singers have capitalized on their own outsized, checkered reputations in their music as they aged–Merle Haggard and George Jones being two particularly spectacular examples. But Prine’s fictional version of himself is quite the opposite of those Tennessee legends’. The banality of Prine’s snapshots of his supposed life routine is crucial to his songwriting–the counterpoint that gives his existential aphorisms more weight.
On The Tree of Forgiveness, the choruses are not quite as cathartic and catchy as they once were, and inevitably recall the same Prine melodic cadences and structures that have endured throughout his near-50-year musical career. From co-writer to co-writer, results vary. The funereal, Trump-haunted Dan Auerbach cowrite “Caravan of Fools” sounds a bit more like budget Townes Van Zandt than a John Prine song. But elsewhere, the mischievous spark returns, usually on Prine’s collaborations with seasoned Nashville hitmaker Pat McLaughlin, with whom Prine has been writing since the ’90s. Their breezy opener, “Knockin’ On Your Screen Door,” is the simplest possible schematic of Prine’s skill set as a songwriter: a three-chord two-step with a verse that’s the same as its chorus, strongly amplified by a couple of evocative turns of phrase (“I can hear the train tracks/Through the laundry on the line”) and a sense of deep loneliness at its margins. If you’re looking for much more, then you probably shouldn’t be listening to a new John Prine record.
Here, as always, Prine’s most distinctive ideas come when he’s writing alone, threading out some strange daydream beyond its logical conclusion. His solo effort “The Lonesome Friends of Science” is a perfect example of a whimsical concept–Pluto being declared a planet rather than a star–stumbling into profundity. From “Pretty Good” to “Lake Marie,” a common tactic of Prine’s has been to pull the concepts of his verses ever further from the topical thrust of the chorus. Nowhere is that more evident than on “Science”‘s tangent about an Alabaman version of Vulcan recalling his acrimonious divorce from Venus. Similarly, “Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone)” guides us through two verses about an overeager young man with gel in his hair trying to woo the daughters of farmers who are coming into town to trade their eggs and cream. But ultimately, the extended yarn is a memory: the boy, now “Grandpa,” is jolted out of his reverie, wetting the bed and hobbling around the nursing home as “eternity approach[es] fast.” Somehow, in Prine’s elocution, the twist is charming rather than morbid.
This is far from the only place on the album where Prine contemplates the afterlife. Heaven has been a recurring staging ground for Prine since the beginning of his career–see “Fish and Whistle,” “He Was in Heaven Before He Died,” and “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” for instance. As he explains during The Tree of Forgiveness’s hootenanny finale “When I Get to Heaven,” the record’s name is taken from a fictional nightclub Prine hopes to open in the sky. He names his cousin and brothers and hopes he’ll meet the funnest relatives in the Great Beyond. Here’s hoping The Tree Of Forgiveness is not either an incidental or deliberate farewell. If it must be, at least it’s both a suitably goofy celebration of his career and a dignified capstone.