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John Prine
Atlantic SD 8296
Released: February 1972
Chart Peak: #154
Weeks Charted: 3

John PrineThis is a very good first album by a very good songwriter. Good songwriters are on the rise, but John Prine is differently good. His work demands some time and thought from the listener -- he's not out to write pleasant tunes, he wants to arrest the cursory listener and get attention for some important things he has to say and, thankfully, he says them without falling into the common trap of writing with overtones of self-importance or smugness. His melodies are excellent.

If Prine had less talent, this would have been a much easier review to write. Because of the fact that the highs show brilliance, the lows are more noticeable; he's a good songwriter but there are indications that he can be a great one. In his liner notes Kris Kristofferson writes of Prine: "Twenty-four years old and writes like he's two-hundred and twenty." I readily agreed with that, but after repeated listenings, the conviction rose in my mind that he doesn't really write like he's old -- the bitterness in his songs might make it seem that way. Hopefully, age brings some mellowness, too. The stories he tells have a negative kinkiness; if pain isn't apparent, it's just below the surface.

John Prine - John Prine
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"Spanish Pipedream" is a happy song, but it is a pipedream. "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore" is another rollicking song, but it does deal with death. This is not to say that Prine's view of the grimness of life is inaccurate. ("Six O'Clock News" might be overdone, ending with the suicide of a boy who learns he's illegitimate.) This is not even meant to declare that he really has strong ideals, that he's a compassionate person who has seen sharp disillusionment growing from people's uncaring behavior toward other people. He's certainly aware of the lonely traps people construct for themselves. It's just that bitterness corrodes after a time -- it's a dead-end street for songwriters.

"Donald and Lydia" must be the definitive song of the lovemaking fantasy (people buzz about how it's about masturbation, but that's really not the point of the song). To select more important lines is impossible: the song is a complete gem, verses and chorus. "Far From Me," recounting the terrible intimation that the one you love is going to leave you, is so painfully accurate of the feeling of the situation you can taste it. "Hello in There" is moving, written about a lonely old couple, a theme relatively unexplored by songwriters (with the notable exception of Jacques Brel).

"Pretty Good" is a pretty good song and pretty funny (but with that kinky streak again) in which the singer fucks a girl from Venus, another girl gets raped by a dog, and various gods hang out, all interspersed with an unlikely chorus which is one of the few touches of sweetness on the record: "Moonlight makes me dizzy/Sunlight makes me clean/Your light is the sweetest thing/That this boy has ever seen."

All of Prine's songs have a strong country feel, but "Paradise" is pure, classic country, downright bluegrass in both lyric and melody, with a tale of how the coal company ruined the beautiful land in Western Kentucky. "Flashback Blues" is an uptempo farewell lament that's a poetic tumble of keen nostalgia, insights to loneliness and isolation, the pain of seeing one's self in emotional nakedness and the running ahead of that pain -- but it sometimes catches up.

Prine's G.I. junkie song, "Sam Stone," is already known by some and is favored in other singers' repertoires. I find it too heavily contrived, not up to Prine's standard. Then there's "Angel from Montgomery," where again the narrator is old. "Quiet Man" has the thoughtful line, "Steady losing means you ain't using/What you really think is right." "Illegal Smile" is again about a bad case of the blues (saved by a sense of humor) -- John Prine must know what bad times are.

The album is well-produced, with a small back-up band used throughout. Though after seeing John perform solo at Paul Colby's Bitter End, accompanying himself on guitar, it's obvious that he can do well with or without. It's good to have such a fine new talent around who is both interesting and provocative. If he's this good this young, time should be on his side.

- Karin Berg, Rolling Stone, 12/23/72.

Bonus Reviews!

The pain of loneliness felt by many can be sensitively and lucidly translated by few. John Prine is a master. Listen closely to "Donald & Lydia" and "Hello in There." With equal lyrical facility he denounces war, "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore" and proposes an alternative to the lifestyle of Middle America, "Spanish Pipedream." All of the above cuts are highly recommended for FM programming.

- Billboard, 1972.

You suspect at first that these standard riffs and reliable rhythms are designed to support the lyrics rather than accompany them. But the homespun sarcasm of singing that comes on as tuneless as the tunes themselves soon reveals itself as an authentic, rather catchy extension of Nashville and Appalachia -- and then so do the tunes, and the riffs, and the rhythms. Anyway, the lyrics are worth accompanying -- not the literary corn of the absurdly overpraised "Sam Stone," but the cross-generational empathy of "Hello in There" and "Angel from Montgomery," the hearland hippieism of "Illegal Smile" and "Spanish Pipedream." And Arif Mardin hooks up "Pretty Good" pretty good. A

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

A revelation upon its release, this album is now a collection of standards: "Illegal Smile," Hello In There," "Sam Stone," "Donald and Lydia," and, of course, "Angel from Montgomery." Prine's music, a mixture of folk, rock, and country, is deceptively simple, like his pointed lyrics, and his easy vocal style adds a humorous edge that makes otherwise funny jokes downright hilarious. * * * * *

- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

Raw, harrowing, sometimes goofy tales of life. Includes astonishing songs like "Sam Stone," the first Vietnam protest song to examine the war's effect on soldiers' lives; an homage to the elderly wryly titled "Hello in There;" "Donald and Lydia," a touching ode to masturbation; the wicked social satire "Spanish Pipedream" with the oft-repeated chorus, "Blow up your TV/Throw away your paper;" and "Angel From Montgomery," a longtime Bonnie Raitt staple. * * * * *

- Leland Rucker, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

Witty and wise, this American original is at his most raw and genuine on this stellar debut rated this Survey's Top Folk album. He reviews the human condition in every state, from ecstasy to despair and in the process devises a new kind of working-class folk-pop. Songs like "Sam Stone" will seem fresh in 100 years -- hell, even his cheesiest toungue-in-cheek tunes tell us more about life than volumes of prose -- litter wonder this master of storytelling leaves you wanting more. * * * * *

- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.

John Prine was a former mailman turned folk singer, and his debut is a vision of America that is unique in its generosity, tolerance and wit. Prine sang about smoking dope, but his emphathy for old folks ("Hello in There") and a junkie Vietnam vet ("Sam Stone") makes most hippie songwriters sound smug.

John Prine was chosen as the 458th greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.

- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.

For nearly as long as there has been a Dylan, there have been Next Dylans -- clever, tuneful singer-songwriters who, some believe, just might replicate the artistic success of the inscrutable Minnesotan. Of course, there can be no Next Dylan, and woe betide the talented young musician charged with being just that. John Prine got stuck with the label early on his career and that is a testament to his immense talent. But so too is the fact that the label fits him uneasily.

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Signed to Atlantic with the help of Kris Kristofferson, the 25-year-old Prine released his country-tinged, eponymous debut in 1971, just as the Vietnam War was peaking. Although it is not explicitly a protest record, unhappiness about the war does emerge, most devasatingly in "Sam Stone," a heart-wrenching ballad on the demise of a morphine-addicted veteran; the song is made sadder still by the plainness of Prine's gravelly baritone. The Southeast Asian conflict also appears, implicitly at least, in "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore," a cheery novelty tune tinged with bitter irony.

Those two songs represent Prine's most effective songwriting modes -- unstingingly bleak and laugh-out-loud funny. You may think "Sam Stone" is the most depressing song you have ever heard, but that is only because you have not yet experienced "Hello In There," a doleful number about old age. Meanwhile, "Spanish Pipedream" playfully exhorts listeners to blow up their television sets.

- Kenneth Burns, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.

The Vietnam vet is home, and struggling. Money's running out. He doesn't exactly have employable skills. The mood of John Prine's "Sam Stone" is one of quiet and vague desperation, until Prine drops in a single line: "There's a hole in daddy's arm where all the money goes."

That's Prine: Blunt and casual and chilling all at once. His songs seem to be ambling along, radiating simplicity, and then wham, Prine shares a single telling detail, in this case a heroin habit, that gives his narrative urgency. Like an old-time raconteur, he's got a stealthy, well-honed sense of the dramatic. Unlike most songwriters who were commenting on the effects of war in 1971, the former mailman and army mechanic didn't align himself with any cause -- as he recalled in an anthology, "all the other Vietnam songs were basic protest songs...I don't remember any other songs that talked about the soldiers at all."

This record would be an essential hit of American songwriter lore just for "Sam Stone." But it also includes several pieces that are just as acutely observed -- including the prayerlike "Angel from Montgomery," which is practically a standard, and the austere "Hello in There," which should be one. These and several other barbed commentaries established Prine as a songwriter's songwriter. Once you digest this chilling, carefully wrought gem, there are a bunch of equally pointed (and almost as great) Prine records waiting.

- Tom Moon, 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, 2008.

John Prine was a former-U.S.-postal-worker-turned-folk-singer, and his debut is a vision of America that is unique in its generosity, tolerance, and wit. Prine sang about smoking dope, but his empathy for old folks (the aging couple in the moving "Hello in There") and a junkie Vietnam vet ("Sam Stone") made nearly every other hippie songwriter sound smug.

John Prine was chosen as the 149th greatest album of all time in a Rolling Stone magazine poll of artists, producers, critics and music industry figures in Oct. 2020.

- Rolling Stone, 10/20.

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