John Prine, “The Tree of Forgiveness” (Oh Boy)

The cheerful and the bleak face off on Prine’s first album of his own new songs since 2005. He has undergone some wear since then: In 2013, he had surgery for lung cancer, after surviving neck cancer in 1998.

While at 71 his voice is gruffer and scratchier than ever, the album is unapologetic about it; vocals are recorded close-up over sparse arrangements, with melodies that relax into cozy countryish territory and sometimes stray toward speech.

Prine’s songs, as they have since his 1971 debut album, can sound both carefully chiseled and playfully off the cuff. There are whimsical moments that might just see where rhymes can lead him — “I’m gonna kiss that pretty girl/on the Tilt-a-Whirl” — but more often, his lyrics ground themselves in mundane detail on the way to pithy home truths. “Sometimes my old heart is like a washing machine/It bounces around till my soul comes clean,” Prine sings in “Boundless Love,” a near-hymn of gratitude on the new album.

Prine’s songwriting is cherished by fellow musicians, from Bonnie Raitt, who has been singing his “Angel From Montgomery” since the 1970s, up through Brandi Carlile, who joins him here for “I Have Met My Love Today.” The producer of the album is Dave Cobb, Nashville’s first-call choice for tracks built on rootsy naturalism.

The album seems to start jauntily enough, with “Knockin’ on Your Screen Door,” a Johnny Cash-style country march. But the lyrics that Prine cackles through begin with “I ain’t got nobody” and mention that his wife and family have left him; now he’s knocking at someone’s door just hoping for company. The album ends with the jovial bounce of “When I Get to Heaven,” which Prine imagines as a place where he can open up a nightclub called the Tree of Forgiveness — and forgive a lot of people.

Mortality looms throughout this album. It’s played for comedy in “Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone),” with honky-tonk piano rippling behind a closing verse about dementia and deterioration in a nursing home, while “They already got your name carved out in stone.”

Other songs grapple with loneliness, estrangement and regret. In “No Ordinary Blue,” Prine contemplates the aftermath of an argument and separation. In “God Only Knows” — the completion of a long-ago songwriting collaboration with Phil Spector — he muses over hidden transgressions.

The album’s quietly desolate centerpiece is “Summer’s End.” It’s a recognition of vanishing time; it’s a plea to a past love. “Come on home,” Prine sings. “No, you don’t have to be alone.” The folky melody hints at solace and resolution. But his words, and his weary voice, don’t deceive themselves.

JON PARELES, New York Times


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