John Prine,
Fair & Square
(Oh Boy, 2005)

In Fair & Square, his first record in nine years, Grammy Award-winning songwriter John Prine sings the stories of our lives with clear-eyed good humour.

Maybe he is "square." After all, these songs are utterly free of post-modern cynicism or self-conscious irony. They are songs in the classic mold -- like the ones Prine has always written, from "Souvenirs" to "Angel from Montgomery" -- immediately accessible and memorable with hummable melodies and simple chords.

More important than the form of the songs, however, is the content. Prine speaks to us in simple language that we all understand, yet he continually surprises us with playful and vivid images, many of which are stamped with his trademark wit: "You and me, sitting in the back of my memory/Like a honeybee buzzing round a glass of sweet Chablis" (from "Long Monday"). In couplets like that one, he dances expertly with the English language while gently reminding us not to take life, as poignantly beautiful as it is, as seriously as we often do. It's a wise message.

Fair & Square was co-produced by Prine and Gary Paczosa, who engineered and mixed the project. Musicians include Paul Griffith (drums), Dave Jacques (bass) and Pat McLaughlin (guitars), with guest appearances by Alison Krauss, Mindy Smith, Dan Tyminski and Jerry Douglas. The CD has a clean, pop-rootsy, accessible sound and is very well balanced, with equal measure of upbeat tunes and thoughtful ballads.

These are old-fashioned songs about love and compromise and honesty. Songs about life, nothing more, nothing less. So that's the "square" part. And "fair"? Prine is that, too. When he speaks of betrayal -- whether on a national scale in "Some Humans Ain't Human" ("You're feeling your freedom and the world's off your back/when some cowboy from Texas starts his own war in Iraq") or a personal one in "The Other Side of Town" ("You might think I'm here when you put me down/ But actually I'm on the other side of town") -- his knife is deadly accurate despite the slightly soft-pedaled and resigned tone of the lyrics. He doesn't need to drive his points home with a sledgehammer. We've all experienced the kind of disappointment he writes about, and he can bring it to light with just a few well-chosen words.

Fortunately, Fair & Square isn't all sadness and regret. Far from it. "She is My Everything" is positively exultant, as is "The Glory of True Love." Throughout the recording, there's a triumph in simply knowing that Prine (just like us) is keeping on keeping on. He's getting older, sure, but maybe he's getting wiser too. He's a good companion to have along the road of setbacks we all travel. His voice, more weathered these days since a recent bout with cancer, is inspiring in the fact that it's still here. If John Prine can come up with so many things to laugh and sing about, we can, too.

by Joy McKay
5 November 2005

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