For nearly five decades, John Prine has utilized his troubadour observations and unimposing charisma to seek out stories of America’s oft forgotten communities, earning him comparisons to Bob Dylan and Mark Twain alike. With tales that boast grace and humanist heft to listeners of all backgrounds, he stands as a speaker for the everyman, providing weight to life’s seemingly innocuous moments. On The Tree Of Forgiveness — the 71-year-old’s first album of all-new material in 13 years — Prine continues to capitalize on his enthusiastic eye for detail and smirk-inducing witticisms, even as he ruminates on looming death.
The street corner poet opens his intimate, rustic album with “Knockin’ on Your Screen Door,” a vivid portrait of Southern culture filled with summer imagery and backwoods idioms. And the record blossoms into the kind of front porch hootenanny it’s so effortlessly evoking, as Prine enlists the aid of Americana hard-hitters who grew up idolizing his songwriting craftsmanship. Collaborations with folk disciples like Sturgill Simpson, Brandi Carlile, and Jason Isbell fill the tracklist, accentuating Prine’s words with the weight of their impact on the genre. Not to mention it makes the tender moments all the more magical, when the communal atmosphere gives way to sparse tracks like the heartfelt and unassuming “I Have Met My Love Today.”
Prine’s trademark tales of small town glory are on display in full effect, but age seems to have found him probing for a deeper meaning underneath the humor. When he isn’t dissecting the burden of knowledge (“Lonesome Friends of Science”) or the struggle for redemption (“God Only Knows”), he is consumed by the inescapable abyss that awaits us all. Still, this isn’t a morbid venture; as one might expect from his dirty jokes and carefree spirit, Prine laughs in the face of death. Even on dark tracks like “Caravan of Fools,” he is taking his mortality in stride.
Leaning on the distinguished charm that has carried over into his twilight years, Prine ensures that his albums are, above all else, entertaining. These songs pop with folksy turns of phrase, never more apparent than on “Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone)”: “Well, you must have left your wisdom tooth at home.” Prine’s wit is his greatest gift as a storyteller, and he has a knack for uncovering the humorous details of his characters’ lives. As the record comes to a close, he makes a joke out of death itself on the whimsical and endearing “When I Get to Heaven,” in which he dreams of an afterlife that allows him to indulge in his favorite vices for eternity.
John Prine’s surrealist, porchside wisdom rings just as true today as it did on his 1971 debut. A truly timeless artist, he is able to remain firmly planted in the past without ever feeling dated. The Tree of Forgiveness balances restless nostalgia with an unfiltered optimism for the future. Prine is stepping out into the unknown, yet his stride is unflinching and triumphant. As he states on the albums resolute centerpiece, “Summer’s End,” he is ready to come home: “You never know how far from home you’re feelin’ / Until you’ve watched the shadows cross the ceiling.”