It’s not always easy to be yourself. It’s probably that much harder when you’ve been an admired songwriter for decades, and part of that self is the ability to empathetically inhabit other characters. On The Tree of Forgiveness, John Prine’s first album of original songs since 2005, the folk singer just keeps doing what he does so well. The album is quintessential Prine, coming through with a relaxed confidence in spare and deceptively simple material. He frequently sings conversationally, his songs no more constructed than a story you hear your dad tell a few times a year. That’s the nature of his artfulness–the memorable couplets and careful phrasing that makes such natural-seeming speech possible. Now in his 70s, Prine seems as comfortable in that groove as ever.
“Knockin’ on Your Screen Door” avoids metaphor, surprising chord changes, or complicated orchestration as Prine slides happily into a character with just enough details to quickly define him: “a can of pork and beans,” “With nothing but an 8-track, another side of George Jones” and “sweet potato wine.” The jaunty music and Prine’s chattiness draws us in as his character’s destitute condition becomes apparent. It’s a quick snapshot (probably a Polaroid, given the presence of an 8-track), but it’s an effective revelation.
That sort of sympathy has always been part of Prine’s work, but his serious numbers draw extra power from the presence of his humor (sometimes within one song). The comedy comes here with “Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone),” a winking, gleeful number that spans from young adulthood through the nursing home. The mood shifts quickly though, as Prine turns to the devastating “Summer’s End” and its placid melancholy. Moving smoothly between these moods, Prine creates a broad and complex world.
The ease of the album can lead to lapses when Prine drifts into well-traveled territory. “I Have Met My Love Today,” a pretty number sung with Brandi Carlile, echoes “City of New Orleans,” while the chorus of “No Ordinary Blue” sounds like Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers.” “No Ordinary Blue” redeems itself with its verses and its complicated emotions. “I Have Met My Love Today” is a brief ditty to fit a breezy, romantic mood. Even these songs, though, are not so much stumbles as breaks – neither one warrants the skip button.
If the album’s first nine tracks touch on the defining elements of Prine’s art, closer “When I Get to Heaven” brings them all together. He’s thankful and openhearted, and while he’s nostalgic and sweet (he’s “gonna kiss that pretty girl on the Tilt-a-Whirl”), he’s also lining up some alcohol and smokes and calling critics “syphilitic parasitics.” Prine’s heaven centers on fun and happiness – it’s all casual – but it wouldn’t make sense without understanding. His nightclub will be called “The Tree of Forgiveness,” and while it’ll be a relaxed joint with casual conversation, it’ll also be the site of empathy and union. The song’s a little crass, a little funny, bouncy and accessible, and bolstered with unexpected depth. Prine knows who he is, what he wants, and how to talk about it, and The Tree of Forgiveness delivers all of that.