Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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John Prine

  • John Prine [Atlantic, 1971] A
  • Diamonds in the Rough [Atlantic, 1972] A-
  • Sweet Revenge [Atlantic, 1973] A
  • Common Sense [Atlantic, 1975] A-
  • Prime Prine: The Best of John Prine [Atlantic, 1976] B-
  • Bruised Orange [Asylum, 1978] B+
  • Pink Cadillac [Asylum, 1979] B-
  • Storm Windows [Asylum, 1980] A-
  • Aimless Love [Oh Boy, 1984] B+
  • German Afternoons [Oh Boy, 1988] B+
  • The Missing Years [Oh Boy, 1991] A-
  • Great Days: The John Prine Anthology [Rhino, 1993] A
  • A John Prine Christmas [Oh Boy, 1993] *
  • Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings [Oh Boy, 1995] A
  • Live on Tour [Oh Boy, 1997] **
  • In Spite of Ourselves [Oh Boy, 1999] A
  • Fair and Square [Oh Boy, 2005] ***
  • In Person & On Stage [Oh Boy, 2010] ***
  • For Better, or Worse [Oh Boy, 2016] **
  • The Tree of Forgiveness [Oh Boy, 2018] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

John Prine [Atlantic, 1971]
You suspect at first that these standard riffs and reliable rhythms are designed to support the lyrics rather than accompany them. But the homespun sarcasm of singing that comes on as tuneless as the tunes themselves soon reveals itself as an authentic, rather catchy extension of Nashville and Appalachia--and then so do the tunes, and the riffs, and the rhythms. Anyway, the lyrics are worth accompanying--not the literary corn of the absurdly overpraised "Sam Stone," but the cross-generational empathy of "Hello in There" and "Angel from Montgomery," the heartland hippieism of "Illegal Smile" and "Spanish Pipedream." And Arif Mardin hooks up "Pretty Good" pretty good. A

Diamonds in the Rough [Atlantic, 1972]
Not as rich as the debut, but more artlessly and confidently sung--the gruff monotone avoids melodrama in favor of Prine's own version of good-old-boy, adding a muscular good humor to throwaway gems like "Frying Pan" and "Yes I Guess They Ought to Name a Drink After You." Plus several decent lyrics about women, the Jesus song of the year, and a Vietnam tribute dedicated to Henry Clay, who helped start the (first) American Civil War. A-

Sweet Revenge [Atlantic, 1973]
Prine is described as surrealistic and/or political even though the passion of his literalness is matched only by that of his detachment: inferential leaps and tall songs do not a dreamscape make, and Prine offers neither program nor protest. It's the odd actions of everyday detail--as in the "four way stop dilemma" of "The Accident"--that heighten the reality of his songs, and his elementary insight that social circumstances do actually affect individual American lives that distinguishes him politically from his fellow workers. That's why when he finally writes his music-biz takeoff it's a beaut; that's why "Christmas in Prison" deserves to be carved on a wooden turkey. A

Common Sense [Atlantic, 1975]
Despite the singer's lax manner, these songs are anything but throwaways. Nor are they self-imitations. Prine customarily strives for coherence, but this time he has purposely (and painfully) abjured it. He seems to regret this at one point--during a more or less cogent lament for a dead friend--but the decision was obviously unavoidable. It results in the most genuinely miserable album I've heard in years. A-

Prime Prine: The Best of John Prine [Atlantic, 1976]
Not as rewarding cut for cut as John Prine or Sweet Revenge, not as interesting conceptually as Diamonds in the Rough or Common Sense. Good songs, useless album. B-

Bruised Orange [Asylum, 1978]
In the title tune, Prine reports that he's transcended his anger, and I'm happy for him, but a little worried about his music. Common Sense was agitated to the point of psychosis, but it had an obsessive logic nevertheless. Here Prine sounds like he's singing us bedtime stories, and while the gently humorous mood is attractive, at times it makes this "crooked piece of time that we live in" seem as harmless and corny as producer Steve Goodman's background moves; no accident that the closer, "The Hobo Song," is Prine's most mawkish lyric to date. Still, Edward Lear's got nothing on this boy for meaningful nonsense, and just to prove he's still got the stuff he collaborates with Phil Spector on a surefile standard: "If You Don't Want My Love," with lyrics worthy of its title. B+

Pink Cadillac [Asylum, 1979]
Weird. With production by Knox and Jerry (Sons of Sam) Phillips, Prine has never rocked harder. But he's slurring his vocals like some toothless cartoon bluesman emulating an Elvis throwaway--related to the Sun sound, I guess, but perversely. Are the new songs any good? Hard to tell. B-

Storm Windows [Asylum, 1980]
Finally Prine has fun in the studio without falling bang on his face like he did at Sun. Unless you count the spy at the House of Pies, the closest the lyrics come to existential absurdity is "Living in the Future"--"We're all driving rocket ships/And talking with our minds/And wearing turquoise jewelry/And standing in soup lines." But he's not throwing them away; you can tell because he's no longer slurring like 8 A.M. on the Tuesday of a lost weekend. And with Barry Beckett in control, his latest band negotiates the changes between happy and sad like 11:30 on a Friday night. Not stunning, but real smart, real relaxed--one to play. A-

Aimless Love [Oh Boy, 1984]
Prine's reappearance on his own label suggests that the reasons for his absence were more corporate than personal. The songs suggest that he's not reading True Love on the back cover for solace or satire. Only "The Bottomless Lake," copyrighted in 1977, falls into his wild-ass whimsy mode, and only the musically retiring "Maureen, Maureen" gets any more acerbic than that. B+

German Afternoons [Oh Boy, 1988]
Just in case you were wondering, this relaxed, confident album is where Prine comes out and admits he's a folkie, opening with an A.P. Carter tune he's been performing for a quarter century and commandeering sidemen from New Grass Revival and suchlike. The songs are straightforward and homemade, their great theme the varied love life of a man whose wife Rachel plays bass and sings harmony here and there, though not on the extended beer commercial "Out of Love," nor on "Bad Boy," about "how to be guilty without being Catholic." B+

The Missing Years [Oh Boy, 1991]
Occasionally too fantastic but never too bitter, the sagest and funniest of the new Dylans writes like he's resigned to an unconsummated life and sounds like he's enjoying one. Augmenting his droll drawl and a band comprising his producer and his engineer, the studio all-stars might be visiting his living room, which is always the idea. He says he put a lot into his first album in five years because he figured it might be his last ever, which it won't be; I attribute its undeviating quality, gratifying variety, and amazing grace to talent, leisure time, and just enough all-star input. I wouldn't swear there's a stone classic here--just nothing I wouldn't be happy to hear again. A-

Great Days: The John Prine Anthology [Rhino, 1993]
There aren't 41 best Prine songs. There are 50, 60, maybe more; the only way to resolve quibbles would be a bigger box than commerce or decorum permits. And his catalogue's out there, with John Prine, Sweet Revenge, and Storm Windows durable favorites. But this is just the place to access his kind, comic, unassumingly surreal humanism. Prine's a lot friendlier than your average thriving old singer-songwriter (Young, Thompson, Cohen), and his disinclination to downplay his natural warmth or his folk-rock retro may make him impenetrable to victims of irony proficiency amnesia. But no one writing has a better feel for the American colloquial--its language, its culture, its life. Except maybe Bobbie Ann Mason. A

A John Prine Christmas [Oh Boy, 1993]
you know he's a cornball at heart, and you know some of these songs, but if you're as Yule-friendly as he is you won't care ("Silent Night All Day Long") *

Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings [Oh Boy, 1995]
Although ex-Heartbreaker Howie Epstein gets more hooks out of his acoustic warrior than his old boss is tossing off, his idea of radio-ready does leave one waiting for the guitarist to shut up already. But usually that's because you're impatient for the next line, and usually it's a winner--if anything, Prine's waggish pathos and lip-smacking Americanese have been whetted by the divorce that keeps nosing in where it's not wanted. Homely thematic/metaphorical leaps are a common structural device--first the TV is hollering at him, then his wife ("They already think my name is where in the hell you been"), then the voice in his head that won't leave him alone. A

Live on Tour [Oh Boy, 1997]
four previously unreleaseds, three previously rereleaseds, who cares--he's got a million of 'em ("Lake Marie," "Stick a Needle in Your Eye") **

In Spite of Ourselves [Oh Boy, 1999]
After two years of cancer treatments underwritten by George Strait's version of a throwaway written with Roger "I'd Like To Teach the World To Sing" Cook, the cheating songs and Nashville novelties on this duet album are a perfect way for Prine to keep his hand in until his muse feels as glad to be alive as he does. Every one of his helpmates--not just Trisha Yearwood and Emmylou Harris and Dolores Keane and Lucinda Williams, but creaky old Connie Smith and Melba Montgomery, and also feisty young Fiona Prine--pretties up his soundscape. But the costar is Iris DeMent, who kills on both the Bobby Braddock cornpone of "(We're Not) The Jet Set" (rhymes with "Chevro-let set") and the conflicted spouse-swapping of the impossible old George & Melba hit "Let's Invite Them Over"--as well as Prine's only new copyright, the title track, in which a husband and wife who love each other to death paint totally different pictures of their marriage. A

Fair and Square [Oh Boy, 2005]
"Old Faithful's just a fountain/Compared to the glory of true love" ("She Is My Everything," "Some Humans Ain't Human"). ***

In Person & On Stage [Oh Boy, 2010]
With so many ears of corn in his bag, he feels no need to put all his chestnuts in the fire ("The Bottomless Lake," "Unwed Fathers"). ***

For Better, or Worse [Oh Boy, 2016]
14 divorce duets plus one excellent Hank Williams ringer, none written by Prine, whose wife Fiona joins in on "My Happiness" lest you worry ("Mental Cruelty," "Just Waitin'") **

The Tree of Forgiveness [Oh Boy, 2018]
The 71(?)-year-old's second album of new originals since 1995 is bare-faced skimpy--10 songs lasting a shade over half an hour where 2005's pretty darn good Fair and Square almost filled a CD. Barely produced, too--quiet g-b-d touched by occasional piano riffs or organ colors, with a few numbers just strummed-and-sung in a voice I never thought I'd say was going because it was already gone when it got here. It daydreams some in the middle, too. Yet it's a keeper to be grateful for, and grateful he is. "Eternity is approaching fast," he notes in the "old folks home" singalong "Crazy Bone," and he's not always so jaunty about it. But in the end, he gets to heaven, where he forgives his enemies, re-enters show business, reconnects with every single aunt, and smokes "a cigarette that's nine miles long." A-

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