This isn’t a John Prine album, this is a fucking banana.
Sorry, I was listening to a banana having sex. It smells too sticky. Ha. Ha. Ha. Oh, my soul. But really, this is barely a John Prine album, except for the part where it was almost entirely written and sung by John Prine. Never had Priney sounded more like Dylan, and not prime Dylan either, but instead wheezy, overproduced Dylan.
See, to this point, Prine was good for basic instrumentation and literal lyrics. For some reason, this albums eschews both of those entirely. The songs are full of backing vocal choruses and tootin’ horns, while the songs take the ol’ “make a gestalt impression through vagueness” path. I don’t have a problem with this approach (I love Dylan), but it’s easy to miss the usual Prine on this album. The frankness and aw shucks approach that made his first albums so charming are gone gone gone, replaced instead by endless abstract couplets. The approach also works much better on songs where I know what the hell he’s getting at. “Come Back to Us Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard” is a lovely ode to innocence lost, but “Saddle in the Rain” is a catchy mess of dunno.
More than anything else, Prine sounds tired here. His voice sags and droops with half the snickering pride it used to have and less than half the good-natured humour. The whole change in style, the repeated melodies, and the terrifying downer of an album-ending Chuck Berry cover that attempts to be chipper but instead makes Prine sound like an old man at 30 or whatever, all of these make this an awkward album.
That said, I still like it. I dig this abstract business! I don’t care if there’s a song or five that I don’t understand, and there’s art in an exhausted rockabilly chorus. Really, these melodies are just as memorable as ever, even if the subjects aren’t as touching. Speaking of which, I love the tearjerker “He Was in Heaven Before He Died,” even if “The sun can play tricks / With you eyes on the highway / The moon can lay sideways / Til the ocean stands still / But a person can’t tell / His best friend he loves him / Till time has stopped breathing / You’re along on the hill” is the most direct he gets the whole album through. Prine’s still a clever, heartfelt guy, but it’s easy to hear how the lack of songs and vain strike at a new approach could lead to rapid irrelevancy. Luckily that isn’t what happened. Seven out of ten!