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John Prine - Tree of Forgiveness (Album Review)

Thursday, 19 April 2018 Written by Jacob Brookman

‘The Tree of Forgiveness’, John Prine’s first album of originals in 13 years, sees the singer-songwriter deliver a fine collection of folksy Americana, with his distinctive and understated drawl presenting themes of mortality and rejuvenation. It is an album of genteel humour and quiet existentialism that should inform (and remind) listeners of his rare talent.

Prine’s voice has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. Two separate bouts of cancer - and their subsequent treatments - have resulted in a narrowed vocal range and gravelly tone.

Because of this, the musicality of the songs sometimes demands arrangements that incorporate additional singers, like Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires here.

Their contributions are most effective on God Only Knows - a wistful epic that soars majestically despite feeling a little off-the-shelf compositionally.

Another beautiful moment arrives on Summer’s End; an open-armed invitation to the singer’s grown-up child to come home. Prine’s writing combines innate sadness alongside quixotic humour and it’s a similar mode of operating to Morrissey or - at a push - Thom Yorke. The difference is that Prine generally manages to evade the moping mawkishness that can invade the work of the other two. In many ways, that is his specialism.

It is the closer - When I Get to Heaven - that is the pinnacle of the piece, fully showing off Prine’s charisma. It’s a semi-spoken hootenanny that brings along honky-tonk keys, children’s voices, gang vocals and kazoos. It is a brilliant distillation of Prine’s wit, and demonstrates a writer with a great deal to give:  

“Then as God as my witness, I'm gettin' back into show business / I'm gonna open up a nightclub called The Tree of Forgiveness / And forgive everybody ever done me any harm / Well, I might even invite a few choice critics, those syphilitic parasitics / Buy 'em a pint of Smithwick’s, and smother 'em with my charm.”

Certainly worth a listen.

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