This year so far, I have acquired six new (well, new to me; they're usually both quite old chronologically as well as used) compact discs. This is the story of the sixth.
John Prine - The Missing Years.
It cost me $11.54.
Released in 1991, this was the first album on Prine's own label, Oh Boy. It's a cliché to talk about artists who make their best work after being dropped by a major, but the scenario applies here. Prine is working for himself here, and being his own boss must cause a lot less stress. And while maybe there was less money up front (I'm guessing), the relaxed hours and other benefits paid off: the record won the Contemporary Folk Grammy.
Prine's a wonder, one of those natural songwriters like Dylan whose output makes the craft of songwriting seem effortless. He's so witty and yet so laid-back that it's almost a surprise every single time you hear him drawl out a goofball pun or a trenchant observation about love or loss.
Here are two of my favorite verses.
A Makah man in a wigwam sitting on a reservation
With a big black hole in the belly of his soul
Waiting on an explanation
While the white man
Sits on his fat can
And takes pictures of the Navajo
Every time he clicks his Kodak pics
He steals a little bit of soul
--- "Picture Show"
I wish you love and happiness
I guess I wish you all the best
I wish you don't
Do like I do
And ever fall in love with someone like you
Cause if you fell just like I did
You'd probably walk around the block like a little kid
But kids don't know, they can only guess
How hard it is to wish you happiness
--- "All the Best"
"Daddy's Little Pumpkin" is a wry song filled with wordplay, addressed to a vapid and probably pretty girl. "Way Back Then" is a bittersweet song about a love that used to be and, surprising given Prine's minimalist lyrical approach, it paints an accurate picture of how sepression takes hold of those love leaves in its wake: "I take a walk, I come back home / Then I sit a spell / Watch the ponies dance around / The empty wishing well." And the title song, "Jesus: The Missing Years," purports to explain what Jesus did in his undocumented youth. Like a lot of Prine's stuff, at first blush it's just silly fun, but (like a lot of Prine's stuff) it's got an emotional kick behind the anachronisms and wordplay.
One of the best albums by a master of modern folk.