Listening to this new collection of John Prine's sparse, gravel-and-molasses renditions of his own early material, it brings to mind how popular music has changed during the past three decades. When Prine first recorded most of these songs, serious-minded "singer-songwriters" were everywhere, soothing the battered spirits of aging hippies with their navel-gazing intensity.
And while his "contemporary peers" crawled farther and farther up their own asses in celebration of the "me" decade, the always-askew Prine progressed from well-written and well-intentioned songs about drug-addicted Vietnam veterans and the evils of strip-mining to far more heartbreaking examinations of neglected housewives, kooky cult members, small-town sinners and absent-minded children being run down by trains. But like the old-school honky-tonk songsmiths who inspired him, Prine always found his biggest source of material singing about broken hearts. Lots of broken hearts.
Now, in the current climate of oily-slick country music and in-your-face pop, Prine has chosen to take a look back to his earlier triumphs in this intimate, bare-bones collection.
Fronting a handful of Nashville session musicians for his own independent label Oh Boy, Prine delivers new interpretations from his extensive songbook. The first time out, many of these cuts suffered under the guidance of heavy-handed producers working for big-time record labels. But like the overlooked double-disc set John Prine Live demonstrated a decade ago, Prine's music sounds best when the guy is left alone to tell the stories his way.
Prine, now in his 50s, still brings plenty of what-me-worry goofiness to songs such as "Fish and Whistle" and "Please Don't Bury Me." (Last year's country duets platter, In Spite of Ourselves, showed his sense of humor was firmly in place in spite of a run-in with cancer.) But it's in more somber pieces, like "Hello in There," "Blue Umbrella" (which he wrote when he was 14) and "Six O'Clock News," that Prine's age shows for the better, bringing a grizzled, world-weary tone to his music that was absent 25 years ago. You can almost hear all the cigarettes, financial woes and bum marriages with every crack in his voice.
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Prine may not break any new ground here, and he probably won't win a Grammy, like he did following the release of 1991's excellent The Missing Years. But Souvenirs is still well worth hearing, if only for the chance to enjoy the latest last laugh from an aging folkie who long ago shucked the yoke of being labeled a "new Dylan," instead emerging as a musical Huck Finn. Many of these songs were the ones that first brought popular attention to Prine. Listening to the new versions is likely to do it again.