Back all the way

There’s a line Bob Dylan sings in “Mississippi” that could be taken as a comment on the work he was doing at that time: “You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.” The song appeared on what would turn out to be a late-career masterpiece – even if Dylan’s “Love and Theft” album is now almost old enough to vote.

Prine John The Tree of Forgiveness album cover 04-13-2018

The line applies equally well to John Prine’s new late-career masterpiece, The Tree of Forgiveness, out today. His voice and songwriting will never equal what they were in Prine’s heyday as a New Dylan, during the waning days of the Nixon administration, but his fans couldn’t ask for a more engaging, delightfully wry album from Prine 40 odd years later.

Like “Love and Theft,” The Tree of Forgiveness is a mordant reflection on death and dying that’s great fun to listen to, Grandpa gleefully dishing dirt to the kids at a family reunion – or maybe a wake. While Prine’s new record has its bleak moments (the mid-album “Summer’s End” and “Caravan of Fools” in particular), they’re surrounded by steady flashes of his trademark wit, warmth, surreal imagery, and sheer joy at being alive. Prine has survived cancer scares and lost a steady stream of friends and loved ones (some referenced by name in the closing cut, “When I Get to Heaven”), and while he clearly sees the Grim Reaper lurking in the shadows, he mostly flips Death the bird and goes about his business across the 10 tracks of The Tree of Forgiveness.

This is Prine’s first album of new material in well over a decade, following a duo album of chestnuts with Mac Wiseman, his third live album, a collection of early demos and radio appearances, a vinyl reissue of his classic 1991 album The Missing Years, and – most memorably – For Better, or Worse, the 2016 sequel to his classic 1999 album of duets with female singers, In Spite of Ourselves. It was a worthy followup, despite breaking no new ground. I’m quite happy to report that my assumptions about the death of Prine’s songwriting muse were completely unfounded. (Though he’ll be 84 if he waits another 13 years to follow up this one.)

The first few listens to The Tree of Forgiveness haven’t revealed any masterpieces, to my ears, but it’s an album full of the stuff of Prine legend, from the downhome imagery of “Knockin’ On Your Screen Door,” the lead track, to “When I Get to Heaven,” a jug band romp about the afterlife. That final track includes spoken-word passages reminiscent of 1990s Prine classics such as “Jesus the Missing Years” and “Lake Marie,” a playful dig at music critics (“those syphilitic parasatics”), and this memorable passage:

I always will remember the words my daddy said
He said, “Buddy, when you’re dead, you’re a dead peckerhead”
I hope to prove him wrong

Prine sounds more reverent than ever on The Tree of Forgiveness, even with his customary irreverence never more than a couplet or two away. “When I Get to Heaven” is a laundry list of the things Prine wants to do in the afterlife, from smoking a cigarette nine miles long to catching up with his late brother Doug, parents, and maternal aunts (“’cause that’s where all the love starts”).

Several old friends and one comparatively new one helped Prine write these songs. He has been collaborating with most of these guys for decades: Pat McLaughlin, Roger Cook, and Keith Sykes. McLaughlin co-wrote “Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone),” the Prine song with the most memorable title since “Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone.” It’s a lightly rollicking reflection on mortality worthy of another wry songwriter who routinely laughed in the face of death, the late Warren Zevon.

One song, “God Only Knows,” was resurrected from a memorable writing session 40 years ago with Wall of Sound producer-turned-convicted murderer Phil Spector. (Prine and Spector also co-wrote “If You Don’t Want My Love” from 1978’s Bruised Orange at that time.) But Prine and McLaughlin penned “Caravan of Fools” with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, who was born the year Prine’s sixth album came out. “Boundless Love,” a sweet song with Prine backed mostly by a subdued organ, is a kissin’ cousin to the title track of the singer’s 1984 album Aimless Love.

There’s no mistaking the ravages of time and health problems on Prine’s voice, which was never what you’d call dulcet in the first place. But he and producer Dave Cobb (who has worked with a host of Prine acolytes, from Sturgill Simpson to Jason Isbell) wisely hang it out there in all its ragged glory, with spare accompaniment relegated almost entirely to the background. Name guests Isbell, Amanda Shires, and Brandi Carlile barely register as anything more than background vocalists, hired guns. From beginning to end, The Tree of Forgiveness shines the spotlight on Prine’s lyrics, workmanlike melodies, and joyous croak.

Prine sounds simultaneously old as dirt and fresh as a spring flower on The Tree of Forgiveness. It’s easily his best album since The Missing Years 27 years ago, and a welcome surprise half a century into a career never lacking in cheery surprises.

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