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John Prine's 'The Missing Years' Showcases His Penchant for Storytelling

Photo: Courtesy of Oh Boy Records via Bandcamp

The Missing Years reveals John Prine's ability to embolden the amusing and touching despite the underlying strife.

The Missing Years
John Prine

Oh Boy

24 September 1991

In "Jesus, the Missing Years", John Prine sang "All agreed that life stank / All the world smelled like poop / Baby poop that is…the worst kind". Written for his pivotal 1991 album The Missing Years, Prine wasn't predicting the contemporary malaise grabbing hold of society since 2016 (if we're being optimistic with the start date). Although it is applicable. But throughout his career and life, Prine's ability to identify the human condition and put it to song marked his music as revelatory. Prine never ignored the caustic, but he often reiterated the futility of dwelling in it.

The Missing Years reveals his ability to embolden the amusing and touching despite the underlying strife. The album is filled with idiosyncratic delights, subtle subversion, and lovingly delivered kiss-offs. The album is magnificent, earning Prine his first Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album and bolstered by the likes of Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, and Albert Lee. For those unfamiliar with Prine's work, The Missing Years is an ideal primer. For those of us mourning his death due to COVID-19 complications, revisiting the album allows for remembering the man and the musician with levity and clarity.

The Missing Years is often misunderstood as a representation of Prine's brief hiatus from music. It is actually connected to the track "Jesus the Missing Years", where Prine speculates on Jesus' young adulthood. In this portrayal, Jesus leaves Bethlehem at the age of 12 and rambles about Europe, finding pleasure in music, James Dean movies, partying, and sex. The anachronisms intentionally transgress temporalities, allowing Prine to construct Jesus as a flawed human rather than a divinity. Prine disavows Jesus' perfection, instead, he's a regular, horny, and listless young man. Prine doesn't see Jesus as Messianic, in fact, "Jesus was a good guy / he doesn't need this shit". No one does. Further, Prine warns against exalting public figures for their perfection, a missive startlingly pertinent to the modern far right.

Prine deeply believed in the power of music and movies. "Picture Show", exhibits the captivating escapism conveyed by movies. Joined by Tom Petty and with references to James Dean, Montgomery Clift, and John Garfield, Prine accepts movies as the manifestation of consciousness and imagination. The line, "Every time he clicks his Kodak pics / He steals a little bit of soul" is a reference to the early misconception in some cultures that cameras took a piece of one's soul with every picture. Here Prine is more interested in the figurative meaning and uses the lyrics to reestablish his belief in the emotional power of film. For many, Prine's music had the same effect.

Much of The Missing Years is inspired by Prine's divorce from his second wife Rachel Peer. As such, the album fluctuates between heartfelt reflection and cold-hearted sendoffs. He tries to reconcile his pain in "Unlonely" while "Way Back Then" remembers the magnitude of his love. "All the Best" confesses in his belief that compassion can heal a broken heart. As he wishes Peer love and happiness, he expresses, "I got no hate — and I got no pride / Well, I got so much love that I cannot hide." Whereas the sweetness seems uncomplicated, the track doesn't fully encapsulate Prine's range of feelings.

"Take a Look at My Heart", written by John Mellencamp, is decidedly more bitter and angrier. A track directed toward his "old lady's boyfriend", he warns of the pain and melancholy she's caused. In positioning her as the enemy, Prine delivers a cunning, if not entirely bedraggled message. As typical of Prine's music, he often captures the complexity of human emotion with simple and straightforward lyrics.

The Missing Years finds Prine identifying these feelings and working towards recuperation. He heralds an important directive to his audience to hold space for these feelings but not for too long. It is necessary to eventually find a pathway to growth. As he reassures, "Everything Is Cool".

The Missing Years showcases Prine's penchant for storytelling, a device he often used to unfurl moments of joy despite the encompassing pain. "You Got Gold" is a little love ditty, but it's interlaced with zingers such as "Life is a blessing, it's a delicatessen / Of all the little favors you do." With a slew of literary references, "The Sins of Memphisto" spins an absurdist take on boomer culture while casually considering aging and the passing of time. "It's a Big Old Goofy World" is a narrative warning of the trappings resulting from expectation and judgment. Instead, Prince avows love, gratitude, and happiness as the core of existence. "Kiss a little baby, give the world a smile / If you take an inch, give 'em back a mile", is a felicitous lyrical ethos describing the impact of The Missing Years and Prine's enduring legacy.

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