Reviewed by Bill Tokash
John Prine was my gateway drug to Twang Life. It took me awhile to finally get myself caught up in the Twang Life. One of my earliest musical memories was playing my dad’s Hank ‘45s on our pop-top record player. But it was the 70s, and Twang was Not Cool in my neighborhood. I kept my emerging addiction under wraps for years, awash in 70s arena rock, punk rock, and 80s and 90s college/indie rock. But the search for authentic ‘Twang Life’ music dominates most of what I look for and listen to nowadays.
The seeds of my addiction finally germinated the first time I heard John Prine early in my freshman year in college. My new pal Eric invited me down for mid-week, mid-afternoon beers, and asked me if I was a fan of John Prine. And I said, “a fan of who?” He excitedly dropped the needle, and after a swinging intro guitar lick, the first couple bars, and the first verse, I was floored:
I got kicked off Noah’s Ark
I turn my cheek to unkind remarks
There was two of everything
But one of me
Hearing Sweet Revenge today has incredible nostalgic, transportive powers for me. Each listen takes me right back to Eric’s dorm room. And now, after the first listen to Tree of Forgiveness, JP’s first album of new material in 13 years, I was again taken back to all those wonderful, early John Prine songs I’ve come to love.
John’s greatest songwriting gift is his simplicity. He once famously stated that, “writing is about a blank piece of paper and leaving out what’s not supposed to be there.” His unparalleled lyrical magic, coupled with his knack for catchy melodies and wry phrasing, is sprinkled heavily throughout this heartfelt 10-song, 32-minute release. Its like he’s created a time capsule that transcends the essence of his artistry. For example, when it comes to simplicity, try beating this line from the quirky, Townes Van Zandt-esque Lonesome Friends of Science:
I live down deep inside my head
Where long ago I made my bed
Other songs for the time capsule include Knockin’ On Your Screen Door, Summer’s End, and Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone). These songs reflect an artist completely at ease with himself, clearly with zero fucks to give anymore, who was able channel his own brilliance one more time after all these years.
The true highlight on Trees is the 1:2 closeout punch delivered by God Only Knows, and When I Get to Heaven. These two songs perfectly frame the views of a man at ease with himself and his eventual date with the Grim Reaper. On God Only Knows, he calmly accepts God’s fate and judgement when its time to Head to the Other Side. And then, on When I Get to Heaven, cocksure that he’ll pass the Ultimate Test, he boasts in the chorus about all the fun he’ll have when he gets there:
‘Cause I’m gonna have a cocktail
Vodka and ginger ale
Yeah I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long
I’m gonna kiss that pretty girl
On the tilt-a-whirl
Yeah this old man is goin’ to town
The listener can’t help but wonder if John has it in his mind, God forbid, to have these two songs be the last two new songs he releases. A kind of songwriter’s epitaph, if you will.