Tree of Forgiveness. John Prine. Oh Boy Records. 2018.
If somebody had told me ten or fifteen years ago, that 2018 would be the year that John Prine was the hottest new thing in Americana music, I would have been rolling on the floor laughing (and back then I would have had to spell it out like that for anybody to know what I was talking about). For those of us who’ve been fortunate enough to always have him in our lives, the idea that Prine would ever be a cause célèbre, is a little bit complicated. It’s like your favorite dive bar suddenly turning into the hottest night spot in town: sure, the scenery gets better but the trade-off is that your hidden gem isn’t hidden anymore. Not that he’s been unknown prior to this, but he’s always been near the top of the list of the most underappreciated American singer-songwriters.
Not any more . . .
It would take a book to list all of the important-to-mention aspects of Prine’s forty-plus years on the scene. I’m not even going to attempt that here. It would take quite a bit of space to layout the story of the thirteen-year hiatus on new music that this album ended. Prine tells that story better than I could hope to here. It will be a heavy-enough lift just to do the songs on the album a bit of justice and leave it to you to go and spend some time with it.
Apparently, when you’re climbing the branches of the Tree of Forgiveness; you can see back in time, get a 360° view of your surroundings, and even peer into the future. The themes of love and mortality tie the ten tracks together as they unfold chronologically. It’s as if they are snapshots plucked out of a panoramic sweep from a fixed position. They evoke heartache, humility, humor and hope.
The album’s first track, ‘Knockin’ on Your Screen Door’, is a reminiscence – perhaps that of a prodigal son – on the beauty of simple things that are only fully appreciated now, when their time has passed. The sparse perfection of ‘I Have Met My Love Today’ leaves you wanting more. ‘Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone) is an impish reflection on growing old and dying in the same place that you grew up and sewed your wild oats.
When the album begins to shift from reflective to introspective, ‘Summer’s End’ serves as the bridge. This is Prine at his absolute best. On one level the song is wide-open and accessible. On that level it is perfect poetry, evoking emotion with each syllable spent. Then there is that other level. The one that, if you look directly at it, it disappears, only to circle back around and hover hauntingly at the periphery.
‘Caravan of Fools’ is a songwriter’s song. Here Prine puts on a master’s class on how it is done. He exhibits the most recent version of the mold he so frequently and casually breaks, knowing that he can always make the mold again. ‘Lonesome Friends of Science’ offers us the observations of someone who keeping tabs on what is going on but better off by virtue of his ability to remain above it all and to escape into home and family. ‘No Ordinary Blue’ is profound insight shrouded in catchy, bouncy melody. It is the point where the album, having handled reflection and introspection, turns to speculation and anticipation.
‘Boundless Love’ is enough to take your breath away as it traces the whole of a life together, from the mundane to the profane to the eternal and sacred, and recognizes that it is all wrapped up in the other’s love. ‘God Only Knows’ is situated in a place that is closer to the end than the beginning. It’s a vantage point from which you can see all that is seeable through human eyes in all of the bad and the good done over a lifetime. It’s a perspective that accepts that anything else is something that “God only knows”.
‘When I Get to Heaven’ is like dessert at the end of a meal of many courses. It is more clearly autobiographical than the other songs on the album. The fact that it is tongue-in-cheek doesn’t make it any less serious though. Anybody who doesn’t crack a smile at that thought of “this old man . . . goin’ to town”, needs to be checked for a pulse.
When it’s all said and done . . . the only thing that I can say about this album that amounts to more than lesser words about greater words is this: Thank you sir, may we have another?