John Prine is the consummate songwriter, and his The Tree of Forgiveness provides plenty of evidence to support this statement. It’s an album created with an abundance of humor, heart and intelligence. It’s astounding how Prine can transition from the slightly naughty “Crazy Bone,” to the empathetic “Summers End.” These songs can hardly be more different. “Crazy Bone” is like a Vaudevillian wink and nod, whereas “Summers End” could easily be a dad’s fatherly advice to his wayward daughter. This is not to say Prine can’t also write a memorable love song. “Boundless Love” uses something as functional as a major appliance to help explain the inner-workings of the heart. “Sometimes my old heart is like a washing machine/It bounces around till my soul comes clean/And when I’m clean and hung out to dry/I’m gonna make you laugh until you cry.” In a few short lines, Prine says more than many recordings muster in a whole song.
Prine gets away with making big statements -- which never come off pretentious -- because of his natural charm. The sweetly humorous “When I Get to Heaven” is personal (he looks forward to seeing his family members on the other side) and professional (he gets in a few digs at critics). He speaks its verses, then sings its chorus. It’s a jaunty little number, and a subtle, semi-rewrite of the folk classic “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Prine may not be a homeless dreamer, longing for a paradise filled with cigarette trees, but in heaven he plans to smoke a cigarette nine feet long. While he may look aged and weathered on the album’s cover, and sing with a craggily voice, Prine’s perceptive pen remains undiminished by time. The Tree of Forgiveness is one of the best albums this year, and also one of Prine’s finest.