Welcome to the weekend, gentle readers! Let me give you a musical distraction while other websites are recycling content and hoping you won’t notice until Monday.
Disc 1026 is…The Missing Years
Artist: John Prine
Year of Release: 1991
What’s up with the Cover? John Prine sits against a rock with what appears to be an illegal smile pasted on his face. This picture looks like Ted Turner got a hold of it and coloured it in. Or maybe Prine was photoshopped in and never actually leaned against that rock.
How I Came To Know It: A few months ago I decided to do a serious delve into John Prine’s discography. When I started the process I owned two John Prine albums and when I was done I owned six, including this one. I’m still on the lookout for a seventh, 1978’s “Bruised Orange” but no luck so far.
How It Stacks Up: I’m not sure. I bought so much John Prine so fast I don’t properly know about three of the six albums yet. However, since (spoiler alert) this album isn’t staying in the collection let’s assume the others are all better.
Ratings: 2 stars
My last review was an album that started slow and then recovered nicely. “The Missing Years” was the opposite, starting strong and then quickly fading. Unfortunately the fade stuck with me harder than the start.
To say John Prine is not the most talented vocalist would be a bit of an understatement. Fortunately, listening to Prine has never been about how many notes he can hit, but rather about his gift for writing an effortless country tune and his talent for storytelling.
As I noted in the lede, the album starts out strong on both counts. “Picture Show” is a foot-tapping earworm and while it wasn’t about anything terribly interesting, when you’re grooving to a good tune, you can forgive Prine a moment of being merely ordinary with words.
Better is the second track, “All the Best,” a song with a rolling finger picking guitar that favourably compares with Townes Van Zandt or Steve Earle at their best. Prine shows that with a bit of age comes wisdom, as he tells a story of a lost love. He walks the line between sadness and acceptance, and manages (after a struggle) to land on the side of the latter.
And while the third song “Sins of Memphisto” is catchy, and the song is generally solid, the goofy title presages the record’s impending decline from there on.
Like Guy Clark, John Prine has a bit of an annoying uncle vibe about him. You know, the guy at the family reunion who hangs around the barbecue and tells the same corny jokes you heard him tell at last year’s gathering.
“It’s a Big Old Goofy World” is loaded with clichéd expressions, and painfully obvious rhymes like:
“Up in the morning, work like a dog
Is better than sitting like a bump on a log”
“You oughta see his wife, she’s a cute little dish
She smokes like a chimney and drinks like a fish.”
Even though I suspect all these clichés are deliberate, Prine is better than this, and while there isn’t anything worse than “It’s a Big Old Goofy World”, there are plenty more bad rhymes on the songs that follow as well.
When the songs aren’t being goofy, they lean to saccharine. “Daddy’s Little Pumpkin” uses an old Americana folk melody, but Prine doesn’t do enough with it to update it or make it interesting. The guitar playing is beautiful here (in fact, Prine pleasantly surprised me with his skills on the acoustic throughout) but the lyrics just aren’t up to his usual standards.
The final track is “Jesus, the Missing Years” is a song that I liked on my first listen but that lost its shine pretty quickly thereafter. It is a tongue-in-cheek imagining of Jesus deciding to move to Italy and get into some misadventures as a musician before becoming God. There are clever turns of phrase here and I think it would have worked in 1975, but in 1991 the hippy vibe of it all felt dated.
The record has a ton of guest stars, including Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, and background vocals from Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt and Tom Petty. It is hard to go wrong with that kind of star power, and to be fair you couldn’t say “The Missing Years” goes that wrong. It just didn’t inspire me on repeat listens the way I wanted it to.
It did inspire the Grammy’s though, winning in 1991 for best contemporary folk album. Of course, the Grammies love to reward old artists making a comeback (this was Prine’s first album in five years) and they also love to namedrop, so all those names I dropped in the preceding paragraph wouldn’t have hurt either. God, the Grammies suck.
“The Missing Years” didn’t sufficiently impress me to make it to the main shelves of my CD collection and so I’m going to reluctantly part with it. I will it to a home where it’ll get more love. For all that, like the album’s best song I wish John Prine all the best.
Best tracks: Picture Show, All the Best, Sins of Memphisto