Review Summary: John Prine’s marvellous debut is a pastiche of stories about those left behind by the American Dream.
It’d be very easy to dismiss John Prine’s eponymous debut based on its art. Distanced from the rebellious swagger of Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Jerry Lee Lewis, while not exactly falling into line with the Stetson-toting, chaps-wearing cowboy image either, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d get thirteen harmless, folksy numbers that might warrant a few lackadaisical head sways before being forgotten, forever. Indeed ostensibly, there’s not much to separate him from hundreds, if not thousands of his contemporaries - Prine’s nasal, Tennessee squawk fits perfectly among the slide guitar, honky tonk keys and stubbornly rigid song structures which typify the genre. Nevertheless, ‘John Prine’ is special, and what makes his debut release such a compelling listen is his ability to tell stories of the unfortunate and forgotten mixed with sardonic humour and crushing characterisation. Opener ‘Illegal Smile’ presents itself as a whimsical sing-song with its catchy-as-all-hell chorus and bright delivery, but its tale of a man seeking escapism from banality through marijuana is laced with dry wit; similarly, ‘Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore’ is a genuinely amusing parody of the flag-flying patriot, but barbs concerning ‘your dirty little war’ (the Vietnam War would only cease 4 years later, in 1975) sit on the mind long after the laughter stops. Nostalgic ‘Paradise’, with its refrain of ‘Oh Daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County’ takes the traditional, wistful reflection on industrial boom and turns it on its head, noting the environmental damage which ‘Peabody’s Coal Train’ inflicted upon the landscape – certainly, Prine seems to revel in putting two fingers up to the milieu where his chosen medium flourished.
There is, however, another important facet to Prine’s songwriting arsenal which makes ‘John Prine’ more than a gutsy satire – he knows when to drop the caustic jibes and side-eyes to the audience at the right moments to deliver absolutely heartrending (but no less charged) fare. ‘Hello In There’ and ‘Far From Me’ approach loneliness in old age and relationships, telling the stories of specific persons yet relaying to the listener how isolation can, and arguably will, affect most of us at some point in our futures. Perhaps most affecting of all is the ballad ‘Sam Stone’, which details the descent of a veteran returning from ‘the conflict overseas’ into familial neglect, opiate abuse and his eventual, lonely, stinking death. Underpinned by a mournful slide guitar and bleak arrangement, Prine’s disarmingly frank delivery – as if recollecting the thoughts of the veteran himself - is enough to raise a lump in the throat and glisten the eyes every single listen.
There’s a couple of expendable tracks, sure – closer ‘Flashback Blues’ in particular functions well for a solid hoedown but feels out of place when considered alongside the album’s wry nature – and (as is almost expected of the genre) there are several points in its runtime that melodies uncannily echo each other, but John Prine’s ability to ‘make real’ the issues that comprise the human condition makes this a record that doesn’t go away easily. Each listen is as biting as the first, that man on the haybale leering a crooked, dead smile at you while it plays.