John Prine is BACK! BACK to being PRETTY GOOD. This album isn’t bad! I can’t complain about it! Trolololo!
Ah, the old vaunted “comeback” album that many old-timers had in the 90s. See, in the 80s people like Dylan and Cohen and Young were generally awful, so when they put things somewhat back together on “Oh Mercy” or “Harvest Moon” critics were understandably overjoyed and quick to praise the returns of the bright lights that had dimmed. In truth, the returns to form were just returns to goodness, not greatness.
This is the same schtick, and nobody who really listened to first few seconds of the opener “Picture Show” should be calling this a classic, stirring return. It’s bad blues-pop, catchy vocals aside, with too-loud, possible synthesized drums and overproduced studio musician twanging and bloozing languidly. But then…oh, but then, it’d take a person with incorrect opinions not to think that “All The Best” is Prine’s best song since 1978. It’s Eels-y, way before Eels: catchy, toe-tappin’, but somehow both remarkably mature and a great fuck-off of an ode to wishing a former lover well. Most importantly, it’s a return to what Prine does best: essentially a folk song, hinting at a short story about a long time, starring a likable character.
That gets at most of what’s right with this album: colons aside, Prine and/or his producer what made him great, and gave us a collection of folk-ish songs demonstrating a sense of humor and a soulful cynicism that translates to some kind of message about impermanence and taking the best things before they’re gone entirely. I don’t know where the hell this guy was for the last five or so albums.
But this is only a pretty good album. The overproduction production tries to ruin a few of even the nicer songs, and sip my tea there are about five (out of five possible) too many shitty blues-pop synth-drum things, a few of which are straight-up boring love songs. One is interesting enough topic – a warning directed at an ex’s new boyf, but the music makes it unlistenable. Then a few of the folky numbers are just schmaltzy – I can’t endorse a song called “It’s A Big Ole Goofy World” like it’s a fucking Sesame Street song. Try not being a successful musician and tell me again how big, ole, and goofy it fucking is.
But hey, sweetly cynical acoustic numbers! I dig “Daddy’s Little Pumpkin” and “Everything Is Cool” like a shovel, and the closer, “Jesus: The Missing Years” is a pretty great Woody Guthrie-esque fantastical tale, complete with humour (“So they got an apartment on the Lower East Side / Of Rome / Italy, that is” or “Jesus was a good guy – he didn’t need this shit”) and enough empathy to make one feel for old J.C.
So! This isn’t quite an old lion returning to his former roar, but it beats the heckfire out of “Oh Mercy.” More importantly, it has the first few genuinely wonderful songs that JP’s exuded, and the sense I get is that maybe the rest of these reviews won’t be that bad.