Like a mighty oak that draws in kids and grandkids with sweeping branches and a rope swing, John Prine towers in a homespun sort of way. Maybe it’s his voice, a gnarly, world-weary thing that automatically conveys gravitas. Or his face, which shows 71 years of observations, experiences and life lessons.
That mug is starkly out front on the cover of The Tree of Forgiveness, Prine’s first record of fresh work since 2005’s Fair and Square. His jowls, wide forehead and wispy grey hairs are surrounded by a pitch dark background and a simple black button-up shirt. It’s a purposeful and intentional image for an album that’s undoubtedly focused on mortality.
“When I get to Heaven / I’m gonna shake God’s hand,” Prine sings on “When I Get to Heaven”. “Thank Him for more blessings / Than one man can stand.” In true John Prine fashion, this track balances an eventual reckoning with death with plenty of folksy whimsy. In his version of the afterlife, he’s “gonna smoke a cigarette / That’s nine miles long” and start up a venue called “The Tree of Forgiveness” — a place where Prine will “forgive everybody / Ever done me harm”.
Signposts of mortality continue to pop up: The Tree of Forgiveness is dedicated to Max Barry, the late son of Megan Barry, the former mayor of Nashville, Prine’s town. And his co-write with the legendary and notorious producer Phil Spector weaves in lines from a child’s prayer, including this bit: “If I should die before I wake / I pray the Lord my Soul to take”.
For balance, however, there’s lots of the simple, joyful wordsmithing that has been Prine’s bread and butter for nearly half a century. Take, for instance, the delightful “Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone)”. On this playful number – which could have easily fit into any of Prine’s first few albums in the 1970s – this master sings of Thursday, “When the farmers come to town / And they spread them eggs around / And they drop their daughters down / At the roller rink.” Part simple American small-town observational insight and part surreal wordplay, it is Prine in a prime light.
Star producer Dave Cobb deserves major credit for The Tree of Forgiveness: he converts Prine’s raw talent and authenticity into something that stacks up with the better Americana or AAA releases of this decade. It does not hurt that current genre stars Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires and Brandi Carlile appear on the album to provide vocal and instrumental support.
The melodies are plentiful and infectious. Starting with album lead “Knockin’ on Your Screen Door” and continuing throughout, The Tree of Forgiveness is full of lines and hooks that nestle in the head. With strains of both seriousness and goofy charm, this Prine album demands repeated spins: it makes you reflect and grin, often at the same time.