Remembering John Prine: 7 essential albums

Seven albums you should check out very soon.
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“Last night, for a split sec
I was a train wreck,
I was a complicated guy
I hope we don’t find
This is the last time
We ever say good-bye.”

Barring any miraculous discovery of unreleased material, The Tree of Forgiveness will be John Prine’s final album, and it should go down as one of the greatest final albums ever recorded. Perhaps Jimmy Hendrix’ final studio album “Electric Ladyland” surpasses it. Maybe “Let it Be.” Then again, maybe not.

The Tree of Forgiveness is filled with one great song after another, ranging from the happy loner of the opening track “Knockin’ on Your Screen Door,” to the mournful resignation just before the end (“God Only Knows"). He is funny (“Egg & Daughter Night”) and he is bitter – as bitter as we have ever heard him (“Caravan of Fools”). He is up to his old linguistic tricks (“The Lonesome Friends of Science”) and he shows the unshaken optimism that has carried him through so many dark songs (“No Ordinary Blue” and “Boundless Love”). He centers the song cycle around one of the most touching songs he ever wrote (“Summer’s End,” co-written, as are several others on this disk, with Pat McLaughlin).

And then there is the final prophecy – “When I get to Heaven.” One final talking song concludes its opening verse with “Ain’t the afterlife grand?” That is not meant to be sarcastic. Prine welcomes the day he can drink and smoke again – “a cigarette that’s nine miles long.” This was not the first time John wrote about death, but it would be the last.

From the debut album, in which three different songs are structured around the main subjects dying, it’s hard to find an album on which at least one character is not meeting his maker. Often it is humorous, as in “Please Don’t Bury Me.” Other times, death is just the filter that shades the entire story, as in “Wedding Day in Funeralville.” It is hard to come up with a singer who confronted death more frequently, and who did so with such grace and equanimity. My first thought, after swallowing the lump in my throat upon hearing of John’s death four years ago, was that he could finally enjoy that vodka and ginger ale he longs for in “When I Get to Heaven.”

My second thought dated back to “Paradise,” from his very first album.

“When I die let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam
I’ll be halfway to heaven with paradise waitin’
Just five miles away from wherever I am.”

I can live with that. John helped me accept it.

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