John Prine (Atlantic ‘71) Rating: A
Though John Prine has delivered many very good albums over his 30+ year career, he's never topped this great debut, which contains many of his finest songs. Immediately establishing his knack for easy going melodies and memorable characters, Prine's greatest strength is as a lyricist who has a keen insight into human nature and a slightly off center sense of humor. Musically, I would characterize Prine as a country folkie, as he generally uses pretty acoustic and pedal steel guitars along with a lazy drum beat and an occasional piano. Perhaps "Pretty Good" and "Quiet Man" could be considered rock n' roll (they even have electric guitar solos!), but by and large this is a mellow album. As for Prine's thin, twangy voice, well, it's something of an acquired taste, but it has an innate sadness that effectively conveys his emotions. Common themes that run throughout the album are war (or more accurately, Vietnam, and even more accurately, anti-Vietnam), Jesus, the pleasures of the pastoral life at the expense of "progress," once close relationships growing distant, and the plight of the elderly (Kris Kristofferson raves in the liner notes how Prine is "twenty four years old and writes like he's two hundred and twenty"). Serious topics, granted, but Prine can make you laugh as well (and often does), yet it is the small details (the fine print, so to speak) with which he truly excels, as a simple, subtle line like "well ya know, she still laughs with me but she waits just a second too long" (from the excellent "Far From Me") can say all there is to say about a deteriorating relationship. Sure, sometimes I wish that Prine sang a little prettier and feel that his musical talent lags behind his writing ability, but some of these songs are quite catchy, such as “Illegal Smile” (a pretty, catchy, comical country flavored ode to smoking pot), “Spanish Pipedream” (a catchy, comical country flavored ode to country living and eating lots of peaches), and "You're Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore" (which begins "While digesting Reader's Digest in the back of the dirty book store..."). Still, while the music is important, the reason most people remember this album is because of its richly detailed, highly moving narratives, such as the way Prine vividly and empathetically presents the monotony of growing old in “Hello In There” (an A+ song if ever there was one, I'd say that this song, which gets me misty eyed every time I hear it, is the definitive take on the subject) and “Angel From Montgomery” (which has long been a staple of Bonnie Raitt’s live repertoire), the dreams of “Donald And Lydia,” and the sad aftermath of war that destroyed poor “Sam Stone” and his family. Anyway, Prine has always been popular with critics and a small cult following, but if you like your folk music spiced with a country twang and can appreciate a well-spun phrase, this superb album will be well worth your time as well.