John Prine Carves Out Another Knotty Winner with 'The Tree of Forgiveness'

Photo: Danny Clinch / Courtesy of Sacks & Co.

On his first album of new songs in 13 years, folk veteran John Prine delivers another masterwork in songwriting.

The Tree of Forgiveness
John Prine

Oh Boy

13 April 2018

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.






Memoir 'Rust' Wrestles with the Myth of the American Dream

Eliese Colette Goldbach's memoir, Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit, is the story of one descending into the depths of The American Dream and emerging with flecks of graphite dust on her cheeks, a master's degree in her hands, and a few new friends.


'Indian Sun: The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar' (excerpt)

Ravi Shankar was bemused by the Beatles, Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds and other bands using the sitar in rock music. Enjoy this excerpt of Indian Sun, by Oliver Craske (who worked with Shankar on his 1997 autobiography), courtesy of Hachette Books.

Oliver Craske

The Strokes Phone It In (Again) on 'The New Abnormal'

The Strokes' The New Abnormal is an unabashedly uninspired promotional item for their upcoming world tour.


"I'm an Audience Member, Playing This Music for Us": An Interview With Keller Williams

Veteran musician Keller Williams discusses his special relationship with the Keels, their third album together, Speed, and what he learned from following the Grateful Dead.


Shintaro Kago's 'Dementia 21' Showcases Surrealist Manga

As much as I admire Shintaro Kago's oddness as a writer, his artistic pen is even sharper (but not without problems) as evident in Dementia 21.


Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad Proclaim 'Jazz Is Dead!' Long Live Jazz!

Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad bring their live collaborative efforts with jazz veterans to recorded life with Jazz Is Dead 001, a taste of more music to come.


"I'll See You Later": Repetition and Time in Almodóvar's 'All About My Mother'

There are mythical moments in Almodóvar's All About My Mother. We are meant to register repetition in the story as something wonderfully strange, a connection across the chasm of impossibility.


Electropop's CMON Feel the Noise on 'Confusing Mix of Nations'

Pop duo CMON mix and match contemporary and retro influences to craft the dark dance-pop on Confusing Mix of Nations.


'Harmony' Is About As Bill Frisell As a Bill Frisell Recording Can Be

Bill Frisell's debut on Blue Note Records is a gentle recording featuring a few oddball gems, particularly when he digs into the standard repertoire with Petra Haden's voice out front.


The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 4, James Chance to the Pop Group

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part four with Talking Heads, the Fall, Devo and more.


Raye Zaragoza's "Fight Like a Girl" Shatters the Idea of What Women Can and Can't Do (premiere)

Singer-songwriter and activist Raye Zaragoza's new single, "Fight Like a Girl", is an empowering anthem for intersectional feminism, encouraging resilience amongst all women.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.