These two discs -- one live, one in the studio -- show Prine's early songs fully formed and genuinely brilliant, though we also hear him figuring out how best to deliver them.
It's been 40 years since the release of John Prine's eponymous debut album, a classic singer-songwriter record if ever there was one. So now is as good a time as any to celebrate the man's songs, which have always been more complex than they first appear. They're both witty and emotive, heartbreaking yet life-affirming, slice of life yet thoughtful and penetrating. It seems oddly symbolic, for a man who delivered so many messages, that his music career began while he was a postman. And here, on the two-disc The Singing Postman Delivers, we get to hear and celebrate the humble beginnings of a legendary career.
These two discs come from recordings made in 1970, before Prine's first album was recorded and released. According to Prine, he found these tapes when cleaning out his garage before a move, so it's lucky enough these are seeing the light of day, but also surprising that they sound as good as they do. Both discs -- one a set of recordings made quickly in WFMT Studios in Chicago, the other a live performance from November of that year -- show Prine's early songs fully formed and genuinely brilliant, though we also hear him figuring out just how to deliver them.
The WFMT recordings came about after Prine was interviewed by Studs Terkel. He stopped by for the interview and then talked them into letting him put all the songs he'd written down to tape. As a result, the session feels quick and thrown together. Prine rips through each song, and of the 12 tracks, more than half clock in at two-and-a-half minutes or less. There's a charming zeal to these performances, to be sure, when he runs through classics like "Illegal Smile" and "Flashback Blues". The deep-seeded nostalgia of "Paradise" is there from note one here -- and in some ways this is a more intimate performance of it than we get on the record -- and "Blue Umbrella", which would end up on Diamonds in the Rough, is the most heartbreaking of these performances. Prine's buoyant voice drops into something more muted and broken and the shift is palpable.
Still, nearly everything here was improved upon when he recorded his debut. There are moments here where the songs feel more like folk ditties than they should. The speedy take on "Hello In There" here lacks the hefty mood it achieves on John Prine, and there are quick tunes like "The Frying Pan" and "Aw Heck" that would appear on later records but aren't what you'd call, well, prime Prine. Most noticeably, "Sam Stone" feels like a different song entirely here. In fact, in title it is. Here it's called "Great Society Conflict Veteran's Blues", and this version feels (like its title) a bit too playful. It's hardly the somber gut-shot the album take is, though Prine's faintly ragged voice still churns the words out with feeling. The songs are here, to be sure, but there are places where the delivery is still a work in progress.
The live performance on the second disc, however, is essential Prine listening. It has some of the same problems -- you can feel Prine rushing in spots -- but it suits the occasion much better. The set takes place at the Third Peg, a place where Prine would play three times a week while he works his days for the post office. He was clearly a crowd favorite (People shout requests and sing along to many of the songs), and he's a born performer. Like Townes Van Zandt's Live at the Old Quarter, this disc shows Prine transcending the title of singer-songwriter to become a pure storyteller. He's funny when he banters -- "This is a song me and Francis Scott Key wrote not too long ago", he says to intro "The Great Compromise" -- and then loses himself in the songs. But there are moments here that feel more refined than the WFMT recordings. He may still rush "Hello in There" a bit, but he plays "Sam Stone" (still under its original title) and "Angel from Montgomery", nailing them both with the deep-down ache that comes out of them on the proper album. It's a brilliant and utterly charming performance from front to back: a must have for Prine fans.
Though these two discs mostly contain material that would end up on Prine's first album, it's amazing to see how much material he had so early, since there's plenty here that wound up on other great albums like Diamonds in the Rough, Sweet Revenge, and Bruised Orange. These two discs affirm the long-standing idea that Prine was a great songwriter, but they also show us just how quickly the classic songs came to him. It may also show him fighting to find the best way to get them across, but in the end, that is the draw of these recordings. This collection is framed with the knowledge that its parts were shaped into something lasting, into a classic record. So even if takes here don't quite match up, it's fun to see them coming into form, and to see a young Prine as a performer finding himself on stage, mesmerizing us in the process.