In April he released The Tree of Forgiveness, an album as serenely weird as his best. Dylan might still live, but after Merle Haggard’s death I’m prepared to say John Prine is the best living male American songwriter. Uniquely American because wryness is a mode of living like using butter instead of margarine on toast, Prine has a rock-ribbed catalog that deserves more performers as smart as Miranda Lambert discovering it every year. Will the Spotify era allow it?
Here’s a tracks list from 2016.
1. Sweet Revenge (1973)
I love John Prine because he treated the ditties and goofball tunes on Bob Dylan’s country experiment Nashville Skyline and country-tinged New Morning like other performers did “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” American absurdities didn’t escape his attention; he held a net and they flew into it. From “Often is a Word I Seldom Use” to the one that goes “Onomatopoeia/I don’t wanna see ya,” Sweet Revenge boasts Prine writing his own “Went to See the Gypsy” and “Day of the Locust.” He didn’t need “If Dogs Run Free” because the rhythms of “The Accident (Things Could Be Worse)” and “Blue Umbrella” had absorbed their nutritive parts.
2. John Prine (1971)
The benchmark and Prine’s only gold album. Stiff in places, like Gramps wearing his Sunday suit. “Angel in Montgomery” joins “Something,” “God Only Knows,” and “Stand By Me” as wonderful standards I never want to hear again; “Sam Stone” is perhaps a too self-conscious attempt to write A Masterpiece but is anyway. The Spirit of Goofball, with its tongue of fire, inspired the forever relevant “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” the grin-and-bear-it anthem “Flashback Blues,” and “Pretty Good,” whose flash guitar part and vibe turn Jimmy Buffet’s laidback ethos into lethargic conservative bullshit.
3. The Missing Years (1991)
Years of self-financed productions led to an early nineties breakthrough in which Heartbreaker Howie Epstein added subtle spritz to give the illusion that Prine Was Back. In truth, The Missing Years isn’t stronger than Aimless Love or German Afternoons, but it sounds great on CD, and I rank it high because when buying it in 2007 kicked off a serious buying streak. Returning the favor Prine granted him in 1983 when he lent his aura to a drum machine-led track about Jackie O, John Mellencamp contributes a snaky co-write called “Take a Look at My Heart” that nods toward “Hurts So Good.” My keeper is “All the Best,” an elegy to a relationship devoid of spite. That’s hard.
4. Diamonds in the Rough (1972)
A good friend loves this grab bag, an album without any unity of purpose except as a way to gather good Prine and great Prine — he wrote “Souvenirs” in the car on the way to a gig. An artist who traffics in casualness takes this risk. I prefer the songs about stuff, or, when he’s feeling ambitious, songs using stuff as conceits: “Clocks and Spoons,” “The Frying Pan.” David Bromberg’s dobro and Dave Prine’s fiddle turn “Yes I Guess They Oughta Name a Drink After You” into a Lefty Frizzell number. The major number, “The Great Compromise,” takes a concept steeped in Henry Clay and subverts it. If Clay stitched the country together for the sake of delaying an inevitable and necessary war, Prine sees himself as the ruined party in a relationship — the victim of the compromise.
5. In Spite of Ourselves (1999)
Leading with the George and Tammy classic “(We’re Not) The Jet Set,” this covers album proved as much a revelation as Elvis Costello’s Almost Blue was to a previous generation, only Prine’s affinities for country-folk run deeper. If Iris DeMent didn’t already have a career singing and writing her own wonderful material, she does yeoman’s work as Prine’s duet partner; her other highlight is the bawdy “Let’s Invite Them Over,” a swingin’ time. The other guests, especially Patty Loveless, bring useful party favors with one exception: Lucinda Williams, already moaning like a swing door in a thunderstorm, lets down Hank Williams’ “Wedding Bells/Let’s Turn Back the Years.” After fourteen remakes, Prine writes his own classic in the title track. I wish George and Tammy had covered it.
6. Bruised Orange (1978)
Charming fare, suitable for hangovers and scrubbing the bathroom. Nothing major, but real good. “Crooked Piece of Time” and the shaggy dog tale “Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone” made a CD comp I burned a decade ago; when Miranda Lambert amped up “That’s The Way The World Goes Round,” I regretted the omission.
7. Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings (1995)
Mixed blessings indeed.. Prine’s second Epstein-produced album is even glossier, downright strange in parts: Marianne Faithful is not my idea of a Prine duet partner — she sounds like a countess visiting the servants’ quarters — but “This Love is Real” works. “Big Fat Love” most certainly does not, a honking number with Waddy Wachtel, forgetting he wasn’t in Stevie Nicks’ band, shredding. That or “We Are the Lonely” are the most boneheaded songs he’s ever recorded; where before the dull stuff would disappear into the grey sound Epstein pumps them up with mixing tricks. Yet “Humidity Built the Snowman” (what a title!) takes the programmed arrangement as far as Prine and Epstein were willing (key line: “the scientific nature of the ordinary man/Is to go on out and do the best you can”), and “Lake Marie” takes “Like a Rolling Stone” chords to explore the state of being required to stand by peaceful waters and talk-sing a story about making do.