Not just the name of his new album, The Tree of Forgiveness is the nightclub John Prine plans to open in the afterlife, where he’ll absolve the “syphilitic parasitics” who’ve given him bad reviews over the years and where he’ll drink vodka and ginger ale and smoke a nine-mile-long cigarette before he goes to find his parents and his maternal aunts.
“When I Get to Heaven” is closing track on The Tree of Forgiveness, and alternates between spoken-words verses and heavenly harps and the kind music you’d expect to hear pouring out of saloon in wild-West America. Its mix of of humor and heartbreak is a perfect summation of Prine’s first album of newly written songs since 2005 – an autumn-to-winter lament that can put a lump in your throat and make milk come out of your nose in quick succession.
Strings, violin and languid melodies contribute to the emotional rollercoaster that is the LP, which like life, is too short – running just 30 minutes. Kazoo, deliberately off-key call-and-response vocals and the sound of Prine’s grandson playing in the studio create the joyous feelings often overlooked in life’s more trying times.
The 10 songs are simple. But not simplistic. Funny. But not dumb. Heartbreaking. But never mawkish.
“When I Get to Heaven” is one of five tracks – along with “Kockin’ on Your Screen Door,” “Summer’s End,” “Lonesome Friends of Science” and “Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bones)” – that are destined to become canonical Prine numbers and be covered by up-and-coming folk singers for years to come.
Prine looks at old age with a wink and a wry smile on “Egg & Daughter:”
“When the grandkids all are grown and they put you in a home/and eternity is approaching fast/yeah, you’re half out of your head and you probably pissed the bed/and you can’t see a thing to save your ass,” Prine rasps, his voice ravaged by cancer treatments but still well-suited for the words he writes.
With musical assists from Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell and songwriting credits shared with Dan Auerbach, Pat McLaughlin and Phil Spector (on “God Only Knows,” the one song that should have been jettisoned), The Tree of Forgiveness is a welcome return for Prine, 71.
And if it turns out to be his last batch of original material, it’s not a bad way to cap an outstanding discography.