John Prine – The Tree Of Forgiveness
Oh Boy Records – 13 April 2018
The Tree of Forgiveness is revered singer, songwriter and performer John Prine‘s first set of original songs since the acclaimed Fair & Square back in 2005, and it is a richly confident and multi-faceted album that manages to load a modest thirty-two minute running time with typically sharp observations set to arrangements that skilfully feather the songs and allow them room to manoeuvre. But, unlike, say, ‘Hello in There’, the heart-breaking empty nest song a prodigious and angrier Prine sang at the beginning of his career nearly fifty years ago, the writing here is, for the most part, settled and quite peaceful. It is the sound of a calmer and more accepting artist peering through a smaller glass and often threading wit and wisdom through the mundane.
‘Knockin’ on your Screen Door’ could even be a book-ending song to ‘Hello in There’, this time from the other end of a life, but what it immediately does, from the first bars of music and the unassuming vocal, is show that this is a record to love almost instantly. As he demonstrated with 2016’s duet album For Better, or Worse, old age and experience has softened this musician and instilled optimism and positivity even into the slightly saddening lyrics of the opener: ‘I ain’t got nobody, hangin’ around my doorstep / If you see somebody, won’t you send them over my way, I could use some help here, with a can of pork and beans’. It’s a typically clever and loaded piece of writing, and we’re only in the first verse of the album. ‘Knockin’ on your Screen Door’ is a sad song, a memory piece from an old lonely narrator, but the tune is jaunty and the backing vocals from Pat McLaughlin, who co-wrote the song, give it a less serious air that fits well with Prine’s man next door singing.
‘I have met my love today’ sounds like it could belong to For Better, or Worse, with Prine’s slightly coarse vocal combining with Brandi Carlile‘s backing to create a gorgeously slight two minute gem of a waltz with a simple message stating the simplicity of true love that it sounds like both singers believe. That little number leads right into a slice of fun in ‘Crazy Bone’, where Prine comes over all Johnny Cash with a smile on us to sing a load of sharply conceived wackiness, the pick of which being: ‘Yeah, you’re half out of your head, and you probably pissed the bed, and you can’t see a thing to save your ass’. It’s naughty and magic, with Prine and McLaughlin again combining to sound like a couple of heckling old boys shouting from the porch: ‘When all them nurses say, Grandpa, why you walk that way? Just blame it on that Old Crazy Bone’. I could go on…
Elsewhere, ‘Caravan of Fools’ is another short and stark wonder, but this time starting with an ominous finger-picked acoustic line that introduces our narrator to describe a ghostly gang that could be out of a Cormac McCarthy novel. It’s darker in tone than what has come before and, followed by ‘The Lonesome Friends of Science’, creates quite a serious core to the album. Here the melody brings to mind Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Pancho and Lefty’ and the abstracted protagonist, talking of living ‘down deep inside my head, where long ago I made my bed’, shares an eerie similarity with that tortured genius. Mike Webb’s piano part alongside Prine’s theremin playing also adds to the sense of melancholy that hovers over this track.
The latter part of the album sees the mood lift slightly, although it’s still not always easy, as the lyrics to ‘Boundless Love’ illustrate: ‘If I came home, would you let me in, fry me some pork chops and forgive my sin?’ This one, coupled with the slightly pious ‘God Only Knows’, suggests a musician grateful and realistic in the latter stages of life. We streak a little far ahead though with the stand out final track, ‘When I get to Heaven’, an ironic first-person number, day-dreaming his chirpy induction into the light: ‘I’m gonna get a cocktail, vodka and ginger ale / Yeah I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long’. But, of course, there are messages again in the merry lyrics, namely the forgiveness in the album’s title: ‘I’m gonna open up a nightclub called ‘The Tree of Forgiveness’ and forgive everybody ever done me any harm’. Much like the all-seeing deity message coming from ‘God Only Knows’, the sense of ditching life’s head garbage comes through here and the shoulder dropping catharsis matches the bar room piano at the centre of the song. Most poignant of all is the almost throwaway lyric towards the end of the song, where our optimistic spiritual entrepreneur remembers ‘these words my Daddy said, he said, “Buddy, when you’re dead, you’re a dead peckerhead.” I hope to prove him wrong, that is… when I get to heaven’. Comic maybe, and dealing with death and mortality, but, like the majority of this gently soaring set, warm and positive and quietly forward thinking.
I love this album; it is a little over half hour an hour of brilliant writing and no-frills singing from a veteran of the game and a band of experienced musicians and guests who leave the words and the nuanced experience coming through in the vocals and lyrics to stand in the foreground, while weaving a musical web that keeps the whole thing perfectly cohesive throughout.
Order The Tree of Forgiveness http://smarturl.it/treeofforgiveness
UK & European Dates
JUL 31 – ROUGH TRADE EAST – LONDON – Live Instore Performance
AUG 2 – KELVINGROVE BANDSTAND AND AMPHITHEATRE – GLASGOW, UK
WITH JOHN MORELAND
AUG 3 – BIRMINGHAM TOWN HALL -BIRMINGHAM, UK
WITH JOHN MORELAND
AUG 5 – CAMBRIDGE FOLK FESTIVAL 2018
AUG 8 – OSLO CONCERT HALL – OSLO, NORWAY
WITH TANYA MCCOLE
AUG 10 – PARADISO – AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS
WITH TANYA MCCOLE
AUG 13 – NATIONAL CONCERT HALL – DUBLIN, IRELAND
WITH TANYA MCCOLE
Full Tour Dates visit here https://www.johnprine.com