The dreaded sophomore slump! If the last album was a culmination of the personalities amassed by a world-weary 25 year-old then this is the same man three years earlier. The wit isn’t as sharp, the songs don’t come together as beautifully. The acumen is still everywhere; this is clearly a work by a terrifyingly talented mung yan, but the songs tend to be far more one-note. The sad songs are just sad, the funny songs are just funny, the anti-war songs are just anti-war. It’s a lot to ask someone to be all three at once, but Prine pulled it off repeatedly (replace “anti-war” with “issue conscious” for greater universality) on his debut, so this is a bit of a letdown. That said, the songs are still regularly funny, sad, and anti-war!
Musically things are more placeable too, which is a bit sad compared to the debut. The country numbers are clearly country, there’s a couple bluegrass numbers in the middle, and the rest are acoustic pickingz, generally in the folky realm and therefore the sad ones. The only curveball is the a capella closer, “Diamonds in the Rough,” which isn’t much of a highlight. He’s a talented guitarist and a far more talented purveyor of catchiness, but the delicacy of a “Sam Stone” or “Angel From Montgomery” is missed.
Q: Hey, how many Mexicans does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
A: I’ve screwed up writing this joke already. I’m really sorry. My unemployment is messing with my mind horribly, and I’m worried that in a couple years I’ll have to sell everything I own, move into a rooming house, and serve mediocre coffee and meat sandwiches with no hope of escape, forever.
But all hilarity aside, this John Prine can sure convey his desired emotion! Opener “Everybody” is a catchy, funny twangy-twong depiction of meeting up with a constantly complaining Jesus. No “Illegal Smile,” sure, but a winner nonetheless. Then the album hits its stride in a string of folk numbers that take you from a shitty nightclub to childhood to the uncharacteristically abstract “The Late John Garfield Blues” to the lovely, witty “Sour Grapes” and then to a sad story of a cripple.
But then it gets worse. There’s a couple goofy bluegrass numbers, including “They Oughta Name A Drink After You,” the title of which tells you of its generic subject matter. Then there’s back-to-back anti-war songs, one of which is blah and the other that’s the great “The Great Compromise,” a pretty fantastic objection to the United States, coming from such a good ol’ boy. The album then peters out with a few unmemorable tunes. I likes “Take the Star Out of the Window” more when he’d call it “Grandpa Was A Carpenter” in a couple years, and “Clocks and Spoons” more when it was “Far From Me” from the last album.
But there I go, being a negative Nelly the Narcoleptic Narwhal. This is still an album any of us would be sick with pride at having written. Except for the occasional shitty song, of course! The key here, again, is Prine’s persona as the cutest, cleverest, well-meaningest country boy ever. That kind of stuff is important, especially when one’s melodies are a bit thin after what was likely two solid years of touring in order to make a living and a name for oneself. The compassion is here in a shotgun way that’d make Gandhi wish he’d picked up a guitar instead of that stupid tabla, and it holds up through everything. The only time Prine gets into himself is to get poignant about his childhood and romantic souvenirs. That’s pretty nice. I hope he marries a nice girl.