John Prine is the folk singer America deserves. And needs. Since his debut self-titled album in 1971 he has been ministering to our malaise with his unique blend of humor and pathos, comedy, tragedy and tragicomedy that perfectly reflects and refracts the American condition.
And boy, do we need this new album of his. The Tree of Forgiveness is his first solo studio album of new material since 2005, and it perfectly matches our condition and our needs. Well, mine at least, I can’t necessarily speak for all of you.
Prine hasn’t been just resting on his laurels or any other body part since 2005’s Fair and Square. He’s put out a couple of albums of duets and re-recorded some of his old songs and done yet another live release. And he’s been touring to packed venues. I’ve seen him twice in that period, and have tickets to see him again on the Forgiveness tour.
Prine has released something like 13 solo studio albums, 14 including this one. Like any longtime musician he’s had his ups and downs, but the high points are really high with Prine. That includes that incredible debut album, and 1978’s Bruised Orange, then a real comeback with 1991’s The Missing Years. And I’ll go on record predicting that The Tree of Forgiveness will join that pantheon of great John Prine albums.
It’s got all of the ingredients. Love songs in the mouths of lovable losers like “Knockin’ On Your Screen Door” and “No Ordinary Blue.” Jaunty nonsense songs right out of his odd head like “Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska 1967 (Crazy Bone)” and “Lonesome Friends Of Science” that comment on how weird people are. Poignant songs about love both good (“Summer’s End,” “Boundless Love,” “I Have Met My Love Today”) and bad (“No Ordinary Blue”). Dark ruminations on current events like “Caravan Of Fools” and on human relations like “God Only Knows.” Here’s “Summer’s End.”
And he wraps it all up in bright paper and a bow with “When I Get To Heaven,” which was more or less inspired by Prine’s continued craving for a cigarette, years after his first surgery for neck cancer that took much of his throat and part of his face and caused him to have to learn to sing all over again.
You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sing along. From the first time you hear them, like all the best John Prine songs, these numbers will feel like your favorite old pair of shoes. Buy The Tree of Forgiveness and go see John Prine on his current tour. He’s not getting any younger, and neither are you, but you can join him in chuckling at the absurdity of life, love and death.
(Oh Boy, 2018)