John Prine stopped at Wichita’s Orpheum Theatre last year on his way to some fishing in the Ozarks. Having survived neck cancer and hip replacement, he looked worse for the wear, moved awkwardly, and lost his voice at a couple of points. But he brought a couple of new songs, and after two hours was elated, almost giddy, directing a sing-along on “Illegal Smile” where he substituted “Ashcroft” for the antiquated “Hoffman.” The first inkling that he had a mission was when he introduced the second song, describing it as an old song that had been stuffed and mounted on the wall, “but the president wrote me a letter and asked that I bring it back.” Then he launched into “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore.”
It took another year for a new album with the new songs to materialize. It’s touted as his first album of new originals in a decade, but on closer inspection the 14 songs include two covers and seven co-credits. On the other hand, that’s about the breakdown of 1995’s pre-cancer Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings. In both cases the co-written songs sound more like Prine than the solo credits, but the solo credits are more striking, proving that it’s easier to find help in Nashville than inspiration. “Crazy as a Loon” shows how this works: starting with one of the similes from “It’s a Big Old Goofy World,” Prine imagined a serial loser who wound up as a hermit in Canada. Most of the collaborations are bare seed ideas, like “Long Monday” or “Morning Train,” that Prine just has to detail to turn into distinctive songs, but they’re rarely as intriguing as the ones he writes on his own.
For instance, his “She Is My Everything” and “Other Side of Town” are polar relationship songs—one awestruck and amused, the other beat down but resilient. And then there’s the song for our times, “Some People Ain’t Human.” The targets of his 1984 “People Puttin’ People Down” were pathetic, still human in their fallibility. But these days Prine’s tolerance for miscreants has worn thin: “They live and they breathe/Just to turn the old screw/They screw you when you’re sleeping/They try to screw you blind.” One example: “When you’re feeling really good/There’s always a pigeon/That’ll come shit on your hood.” More specifically: “Some cowboy from Texas/Starts his own war in Iraq.” That’s not a political song. That’s a moral one.