God’s on the Phone
November 19, 1991
Now that Bonnie Raitt has got hers, the most thoroughly accomplished-but-denied veteran pop musician in America is John Prine (no arguments please). An insider’s favorite who dates from the initial early-’70s batch of singer-songwriters, Prine is far less eroded as a performer now than his more canonized peers. After 10 albums, first on Atlantic, then Asylum, and finally his own label (which has absorbed the Asylum catalogue), Prine offers still more evidence that being admired by peers guarantees nothing for your career: at various times Prine has been boosted by Kris Kristofferson, Bonnie Raitt, and the Eagles, while a passel of performers including the Everly Brothers, Bette Midler, and Tammy Wynette have sung his tunes. No doubt he’s held down by the vague but common impression he’s a sap. Prine always had a soft spot in his head for maudlin lost loves and wasted moments of innocence, but as he’s aged he’s learned the point is to risk sentimentality without quite touching it. There’s scarcely a choked-back sob in Prine’s new The Missing Years (Oh Boy), his richest record in a decade.
Prine has invited along a raft of singers (Phil Everly, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, others), though it’s more of a show of solidarity than a duet hoedown since most guests act as voice extenders, harmonizing from the shadows of the mix. An exception is “Take a Look at My Heart,” sung by Prine and Springsteen, written by Prine and John Mellencamp, and delivered with a Midwestern-plains dolor that makes it a potent bruised-rugged-guy testament. More prominent and abiding help on The Missing Years comes from the likes of David Lindley and Albert Lee on stringed instruments and John Jorgenson on reeds; linked with Prine’s twang, which has developed some pleasant leather coating, these players shape a record that can travel from the naked bulb in the flophouse hall to the lights of the midway at the county fair.
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The personnel work as a dense ensemble, with many defined dabs of color only when Prine wants a wide-screen production with special effects galore like “Picture Show.” He surely knows, however, that bombastic, flashy presentations of trite love songs are just about ruining the form right now. Even when half a dozen musicians back him up on the thankful praises of “Unlonely,” Howie Epstein’s production keeps Prine as huddle close as he is with just his guitar on “Everybody Wants to Feel Like You.” The jaunty tone of that song and the popping, single-string commentary behind “Daddy’s Little Pumpkin” disguise the fact that Prine has become drier and darker than ever before. The narrators of these two tunes, while not as discomforting as Randy Newman would have made them, are guys alienated from themselves, trapped in romances and binges that are spinning out of control faster than they know. One of Prine’s triumphs here is the flat, conversational vocal on “Daddy’s Little Pumpkin,” with its leering little swells and dips, so precisely the sound of a bad-time Charlie swinging between vivacity and malice.
Somebody can drop off the end of their rope or start to climb back up it at any place, and that moment that wavers between final despair and the rebirth of confidence is one of Prine’s favorites. It’s a regular source of the off-center states of mind and corresponding imagery in his work. He can be simply whimsical (“It’s a Big Old Goofy World”) or tartly hermetic (“The Sins of Mephisto”), but the songs that outstrip those of his old pal Steve Goodman and pull Prine into the realm of Big Daddy Dylan are those like “Everything Is Cool” and “Jesus the Missing Years” — unclassifiable kinds of modernist religious meditations.
Prine never gets caught shouting and banging on the high keys about this. His sense of the supernatural derives more from the everyday wonderment that causes people to invent phrases such as “I felt like I’d been pulled through a knothole backwards” rather than the literature of surrealism or Biblical frescoes. Still, the man has been haunted by Christianity since his debut album 20 years ago: “Pretty Good” sent up all religions; God got mentioned frequently; Jesus died for nothing at the core of “Sam Stone,” disapproved of killing on “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” and had to be found on your own in “Spanish Pipedream.” Counterculturists and the Nazarene were regular associates in those years, but to this day, when the celestial mood grips Prine the sky is thick with black angels, Jesus covers the waterfront, and God’s not in his heaven — he’s on the phone and won’t let well enough alone.
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People are a little ill at ease with artists who have a persistent, unconventional relationship with the divine, especially when they insist on using conventional names and symbols — it implies that standard theology is correct but that everybody else got it wrong. Long before he got bitten by T-Bone Burnett, the young Dylan did rambles where the Son of God had a walk-on as an ordinary soul passing through absurd misadventures and Prine goes one further here with “Jesus the Missing Years.” During that notorious gap in the Bible biography, Christ shatters time and space to get tangled up with James Dean and get on stage with George Jones and generally act out the fantasies of, as Prine puts it in another song, “A young man from a small town/With a very large imagination.” The singer’s identification with the Redeemer is plain, but again he’s not puffed up about it. The proposition seems to be that Prine, Dean, Mark Twain, you, me, and anybody at all could be Jesus.
A performer with the gumption to stick with that hoary hippie notion just might have the endurance to make it through the current harsh cultural climate in which he’s just one more low-sales loser. Forget the punk era — the next two or three years will test as never before who’s still got the guts to be a pop independent. After The Missing Years, I’m going to double my bet on Prine.