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'Days' Pays Tribute to Prine Time

September 05, 1993|ROBERT HILBURN


"The John Prine Anthology: Great Days"


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In a line almost as good as a John Prine lyric, Village Voice columnist Jack Newfield once compared discovering Prine's music to seeing Willie Mays catch a fly ball for the first time.

The remarkable thing about the Chicago-born singer-songwriter is that two decades after the Newfield column, Prine's music still carries that same thrill, as this excellent two-disc retrospective attests.

Whether you are listening to the oldest of these 41 songs (from his widely acclaimed 1971 debut) or the latest (songs from his Grammy-winning 1991 collection), Prine's music reflects a masterful sense of imagery and rhyme, and offers fundamental truths about the human condition.

While Prine has a spunky sense of humor, his best work tends to speak about the moments of isolation in life. The observations are sometimes about social issues--the neglect of old people in "Hello in There," the country's loss of values in "The Great American Compromise," a new generation's search for identity and purpose in "Come Back to Us Barbara Lewis, Hare Krishna Beauregard."

Mostly, however, Prine focuses on the delicateness of relationships, including the blinding moments of heartache. In "Souvenirs," he declares: "Broken hearts and dirty windows / Make life difficult to see."

Rivaled only by Joni Mitchell among the post-Dylan crop of folk-flavored writers, Prine is such a gifted artist that he can convey the innocence and disillusionment of relationships in a single, compact line.

In "It's Happening to You," he underscores both the sweetness and uncertainty of romance when he has a couple so captivated by each other that they "pledge their love forever / Then they add a day"--an acknowledgment of the general loss of faith in lasting relationships, as if pledging forever isn't really enough.

So why hasn't someone this good become a household name?

Prine's commercial future was sabotaged in the '70s and '80s by conservative radio programmers who felt his voice was too raw and that his records sounded too folky or too country or too thoughtful.

Prine, who'll be 47 in October, continues to tour and release albums on his own Oh Boy label. This anthology is an ideal way for latecomers to catch up with Prine's work and for longtime fans to relive some of the magic.

New albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent). A rating of five stars (a classic) is reserved for retrospective albums.

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