Monday, October 4, 2010

I'd Love to Turn You On #19: John Prine - Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings

Is this Prine's best album of his 40-year career? How can it be, when you have his self-titled debut album to contend with? How can it be when the rock-leaning production by Howie Epstein offers up flourishes that betrays his folky roots? Well, that title album is great, sure (and so are Sweet Revenge and The Missing Years and Common Sense, and…), but by this point in his career, he’d had 25 years to hone his wit to razor sharpness, and was now able to throw down absolutely perfect lines at will that marry serious topics to Prine's goofy sense of humor. Take for example, one of the many rocky marriage songs that are strewn throughout this album, “Quit Hollerin' At Me,” where he notes that "They already think my name is where in the hell you been?" cutting straight to the heart of a troubled relationship with a grin. Or take in the entirety of “New Train” which kicks album off with the lightest view of divorce ever heard. It’s viewed as a new beginning rather than a spiteful and bitter melodrama, maybe because he's singing from the other side of the a divorce that's already happened unlike Richard & Linda Thompson on Shoot Out the Lights or the entirety of Fleetwood Mac on Rumours. Throughout the record, Prine alternates between slower love songs and more rock-ish upbeat ones, decorated with the flourish of a cadre of fans Epstein assembled to back him, including Marianne Faithfull and Benmont Tench of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers. As the songs progress we see that the sentimental side that penned “I Love You So Much It Hurts” and “This Love Is Real” with tongue nowhere near cheek co-exists with the puckish side that wrote “Big Fat Love,” about a skinny kid, and “We Are the Lonely,” which takes a look at the day’s personal ads to find the common denominator in the title. And then there are the songs – most of them in fact – where the two co-exist within the song, as in his best ever song (that’s right, I said best ever, so move aside “Sam Stone”): “Lake Marie,” where he ruminates on a fading marriage (and other darker subjects) with lines like "Many years later we found ourselves in Canada/trying to save our marriage/and perhaps catch a few fish/whatever came first" that still doesn’t convey the catchiness of the sing-along chorus or the perfect timing and emphasis with which he dryly delivers the line. The album could exist merely as a vehicle for providing that highlight alone, but it also happens to be Prine’s most consistent record ever as well, right along with that debut album, and better than the others named above. Every record I've heard of his has a few gems and some workable stuff. Sometimes the gems shine so brightly that the rest of the stuff basks in their gleam and the record sounds great throughout. Only on the debut and here do I think that all the lesser material has its own shine to give when you're listening. To sum up: “Perfectly crafted popular hit songs never use the wrong rhyme” he says elsewhere, and then to prove his point in this perfectly crafted non-popular non-hit song, completes the rhyme with “You’d think that waitress could get my order right the first time.”

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