On John Prine’s The Tree of Forgiveness (Oh Boy Records), his first album of new material in 13 years, the master songwriter invites you to take a seat in the shade and listen as he and some of his all-star friends spin you a tune. Superstar guests here include Brandi Carlile (background vocals, kazoo, claps) and Jason Isbell (electric guitar, slide guitar, background vocals), as well as Isbell’s wife and bandmate, Amanda Shires (fiddles, background vocals). It’s a wonderful, classic slice of Americana, and a stranger tree than any we’ve climbed before with Prine.
In concert at DAR Constitution Hall last November, John and his band appeared dapper in suit and tie. At the end of his set, John gleefully danced off stage. Where once John’s music – “Sam Stone,” “Hello In There,” – was a gut-punch, The Tree of Forgiveness shows us a songwriter who, at 71, has found peace and joy in his later years. John delights in his own creativity and cleverness, he shows off a little, and probably had a good smirk about it, rhyming “critics” with “syphilitic parasitics.”
In “The Lonesome Friends of Science,” John sings “The lonesome friends of science say / The world will end most any day / Well, if it does then that’s OK.” The young John Prine would break our hearts with a small, personal story about the effects of climate change, but this John Prine gives us a weird, wonderful song about a man in Tennessee, planets, and Romans gods, deftly mixing metaphors.
A superbly talented group of musicians backs up Prine on the album: Ken Blevins (drums, kick drum, rack tom), Dave Cobb (acoustic guitar, mellotron, claps), Dave Jacques (bass), Pat McLaughlin (background vocals, mandolin), Mike Webb (mellotron, B3, piano), and Jason Wilber (electric guitar).