Earlier in 2018, the Chainsmokers dropped "Sick Boy," a catchy, oddball song that sums up much of what's wrong with today's world: egotism, narcissism and social-media obsession. The song is about the disembodied present that we're both chasing and drowning in; the lyrics are depressive and beyond dystopian, no matter how fun they are to move to.
The Chainsmokers get it: Our society is sick. But they don't offer much in the way of a solution; their music and persona are intertwined with the malaise.
Amid the bleeps and blips, drug-enhancing electronic swells and dips of Ableton-produced dance music — and in an era in which bedroom recordings have the polish of the pop-music machine and even rock, country and Americana have been sullied with EDM — the return of folkie John Prine’s rustic, lung-cancer-scarred voice serves as a balm. His music is deeply human. It doesn't shy away from life's troubles, and gives us a reason to root ourselves in the now, with others.
Prine will come to Denver this fall, and he'll play with Mile High hero Nathaniel Rateliff, whose music is no less human and whose lyrics match Prine's in craft. Both have dropped records this year that demand multiple plays. Both are as vital as ever.
Prine's latest, The Tree of Forgiveness, which came out April 13, is as funny and tragic — in that mundane, Raymond Carver sort of way — as any of his other albums. The new songs are the simple-profound stuff we need, in this time when people are more aware of their phones than the weather and acquaintances' tweets than the person lying next to them in bed. These songs help us remember that life, in all its quotidian details, is well worth living — even when it hurts.
Thirteen years have passed since Prine's last album of originals. But while his output has certainly slowed over the years, the quality of his songwriting is as strong as ever. His lead-handed picking, bare-bones chord progressions and perfectly imperfect timber evoke warm spring days, sitting on a porch, singing homemade songs with old friends — music that can’t help but charm and disarm.
The first time I heard a Prine song, I was hanging out with a bunch of punks around a campfire, trading turns on a beat-up classical guitar. Two twenty-somethings — who were dating then and I'm pretty sure don't talk anymore — started singing "In Spite of Ourselves:"
"In spite of ourselves
We'll end up a'sittin' on a rainbow
Against all odds
Honey, we're the big door prize
We're gonna spite our noses
Right off of our faces
There won't be nothin' but big old hearts
Dancin' in our eyes."
I was pretty sure my friends were lyrical geniuses. Later, I found out the truth, listening to Prine's albums in awe: My friends just had good taste.
From the glorious “Angel From Montgomery,” Prine’s first hit, to the album In Spite of Ourselves, a series of duets with women singer-songwriters (including the equally lyrically savvy, gritty Lucinda Williams), Prine has spent the decades since the late ’60s as a songwriter pursuing quirky perfection, with little regard for commercial tropes, yet appealing just the same.
The list of artists his songs have inspired is vast, from Bob Dylan to Jason Isbell. Surely, the new album will be as influential.
“Boundless Love,” one of Prine's most classically Prine numbers on The Tree of Forgiveness, opens with a few stripped-down lines: “I woke up this morning to a garbage truck. Looks like this old horseshoe’s done run out of luck. If I came home, would you let me in/Fry me some pork chops and forgive my sins.” It’s a tune that’s been around as long as words have been put to music, a baby-won’t-you-take-me-back song. But in the details and seeming simplicity of his verse, he constructs an irresistible narrative, something most of us can latch onto — whether we eat pork chops or have ever woken up to a dump-truck alarm clock.
Prine imagines the afterlife in "When I Get to Heaven" as less of a perfect future and more a way of honoring the best of his life: the joy of drinking, smoking, kissing and family. He looks forward to seeing his relatives: "I miss them all like crazy, bless their little hearts." It's quaint, verging on corny. But he's no sugary dolt. While he's not ashamed to share the things in life that make him smile, he also snuffs out any sniff of saccharine nostalgia when he reminisces: "And I always will remember these words that my daddy said/He said, 'Buddy, when you're dead, you're a dead peckerhead.'" Prine pauses. Maybe so, we think? Maybe we just die? Peckerheads? That's all we are...probably...right? The pause ends. He continues: "I hope to prove him wrong — that is — when I get to heaven."
The final line of the song and the album, which Prine repeats again and again, is a joyful, robust, open-armed, folksy embrace of death: "This old man is going to town."
Town: That's a place he makes us all want to go — one where we can smoke a nine-mile-long cigarette, drink vodka and ginger ale, form a rock-and-roll band, and maybe find love.
Prine may just dole out the drug the Chainsmokers' sick boy needs: Live now and pay attention to what's going on around you. Just go to town, and you might find heaven.
John Prine with Nathniel Rateliff, 8 p.m. November 10, Buell Theatre, $62.50 to $110.50.
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