Heaven Can Wait: Songs of experience from John Prine, Willie Nelson, Oak Ridge Boys

tree of forgiveness

By the end of his witty and wistful new album, Tree of Forgiveness, John Prine has managed to squeak his way into Heaven, where he proceeds to play songs, smoke cigarettes, and forgive everyone who ever wronged him. It’s a happy ending, and it’s well-earned: Prine is nothing if not a survivor, and Tree of Forgiveness feels scrappy and hard-won, both in its sound and in its form. It’s been 13 years since the last set of original tunes from Prine, and this new collection is endearingly tattered and terse: Its 10 songs—with copyright dates that span decades—barely comprise half an hour of music, and something like “I Have Met My Love Today,” at under two minutes long, feels like a precious fragment, the dog-eared remnant of some holy text that Prine’s been carrying around in his wallet through periods of creative drought and bad health. Throat surgery and cancer both left their marks on his voice, never frailer and never more expressive than here, the perfectly weathered instrument for a songwriter who remains a bemused participant in life’s tender mercies and tragicomic indignities. His gristle brings the weight of wisdom to “The Lonesome Friends of Science,” a song for the discarded and the forgotten that hinges on the revoked planetary status of Pluto, which Prine knowingly says “never stood a chance no how,” and his droll detachment keeps the minor-key “Caravan of Fools” from congealing in its own despair; his off-handed disdain for the crimes of the plutocrats suggest that there’ve always been hard times, and so far we’ve always found a way to live through ‘em. Prine’s lyrics are hardscrabble and plainspoken, but never at the expense of local color; on “Knockin’ on Your Screen Door,” his rural vernacular is as commanding as Lucinda Williams’: “I was in high cotton, just a-bangin’ on my six-string/ A-kickin’ at the trash can, walkin’ skin and bone.” Meanwhile, the whole album bears a sympathetic Dave Cobb production, one that prizes simplicity but lights up with color when the songs call for it: “Knockin’ on Your Screen Door” is roughed-up, ramshackle blues, “When I Get to Heaven” is a whimsical jamboree, and “Summer’s End” is buoyed by understated, cinematic strings. Some of the songs sound like trifles at first, but the weightier songs give context to the slight ones, until you realize they’re not so slight at all: Prine is the pilgrim making progress, winding his way through sickness and death, the Caravan of Fools and the lonesome plight of Pluto, all the while aware that he’s in his twilight years. The key song here is “Summer’s End,” which grounds everything else in a certain eschatological urgency; “summer’s end came faster than we wanted,” Prine admits. It always does—but knowing how things end brings focus and perspective. “Boundless Love” takes on a hymn-like quality, and “God Only Knows” turns regret into something more like penitence and contrition. It’s as though he’s condensed all the ragged wisdom and experience of his lifetime into these hard-boiled tunes, and chiseled away anything superfluous. We’re left with the stuff that really matters: “Come on home,” Prine pleads on “Summer’s End.” “You don’t have to be alone.” Even on this side of heaven, boundless love is there for anyone seeking it.

Prine’s not the only grizzled pro who’s singing about matters of life and death. At 85, Willie Nelson has certainly earned the right to enter the sepia-toned phase of his career, and his new Last Man Standing is at least his third album in a row to confront mortality head-on: For the Good Times paid tribute to his late friend Ray Price, and God’s Problem Child found him tackling old age through a series of remembrances, autobiographical sketches, and sly jokes. Last Man Standing ups the joke content considerably, allowing Willie to confront his twilight years with a light touch, an amiable chuckle, and just a hint of sentimentality thrown in for good measure. The latter comes mostly in the form of “Something You Get Through,” a tender ballad about saying goodbye to someone you’ve loved a long time; the pain never subsides, Willie reckons, but maybe it makes you tougher. More characteristic of the album’s playful streak is “Bad Breath,” a surprisingly philosophical ode to halitosis: “Bad breath is better than no breath at all,” Willie sings. And then there’s the wistful second-guessing of the title track: “I don’t wanna be the last man standing/ Wait a minute, maybe I do.” To outlive your contemporaries is a lonesome achievement, but have you considered the alternative? Willie wrote all 11 of these songs with Buddy Cannon, who also produced the set—and if the red-headed stranger doesn’t mix his American music idioms with the same staggering virtuosity he showed in the days of Stardust and Shotgun Willie, he remains casually eclectic, seamless and smooth in his intermingling of folk forms. Last Man Standing is very much a roots record, one that’s equally charming when it offers burnished blues (“Bad Breath”), Texas swing (“Ready to Roar”), rollicking honky-tonk sing-alongs (“Don’t Tell Noah”), and smooth, folksy shuffles (“Me and You.”) For all its amiability, the record isn’t without some prickliness; John Prine may make it into Heaven, but Willie’s aware that “Hell is a-waitin’ there too.” Of course, he’s spent his career writing tough songs that sound smooth and easygoing; that’ the achievement of Last Man Standing, and it’s the achievement of his lifetime.

17th Avenue Revival, new from the Oak Ridge Boys, has a couple of through-lines to the John Prine and Willie Nelson albums. Like Tree of Forgiveness, this nine-song collection was helmed by Dave Cobb, an in-demand country and roots producer whose reputation for traditionalism undersells his breadth and variety. This year alone, he shepherded the scrappy charm of Tree of Forgiveness, brought string-swept melodrama to Brandi Carlisle’s By the Way, I Forgive You, and helped Ashley Monroe revitalize emotive countrypolitanism on her sublime Sparrow. Here, he connects the Oak Ridge Boys to the spirit of the Million Dollar Quartet, bringing grit and immediacy to their southern gospel. 17th Avenue Revival also fits with Tree of Forgiveness and Last Man Standing for how it finds grizzled veterans offering song of experience, ragged wisdom for summer’s end. “Brand New Star,” the opening song, forgoes Prine’s sly wit and Willie’s deadpan jokes in favor of pure sentimentality; the song reckons that a lost loved one has been turned into a celestial body, an idea that’s not found anywhere in the Bible but does fit with a certain cultural evangelicalism. The schmaltz is balanced out by a seemingly sincere read of Brandy Clark’s “Pray to Jesus”—a tune where desperation points to either religion or gambling, whichever saves you faster—and what’s more, it lands with visceral impact thanks to Cobb’s stripped-down production: It’s just the sound of four guys harmonizing in real time, keeping the beat through snapped fingers and the occasional hand clap, Cobb’s acoustic guitar the only instrumentation. There’s also the pummeling rockabiliy of “God’s Got It,” which sells its message of divine sovereignty through sheer barreling momentum, and an album-ending performance of “Let it Shine On Me” that builds to a sanctified hootenanny. The record is thick with the snap of the upright bass, the lingering dissonance of pounded pianos, and the rattle of tambourines—but on slower songs, like the hymn “I’d Rather Have Jesus,” the Oak Ridge Boys supply all their own special effects through those well-worn harmonies. Because he aligns these songs with the aesthetics of rock, country, and blues, Cobb rightly places Southern Gospel within the continuum of American folk traditions—and indeed, 17th Avenue Revival sidesteps pageantry in favor of austere reflections on faith and devotion, its hopefulness in the Lord feeling tested and sincere. “Joy comes in the morning/ And outshines the darkest of nights,” one song says. They know as well as Prine does that summers end—but maybe that’s not the end of the story.

Live Fast and Never Die: Kali Uchis’ songs of solitude

isolation

“Body Language,” the opening song on Kali Uchis’ Isolation, takes a mere two verses to move from the thrill of infatuation to the regret of a breakup. When the track opens, the singer is flush with excitement, ready to fall headlong into the arms of her lover; when it ends, she’s alone. The song—a cool Jobim breeze—captures that elusive bosa nova melancholy, the way Brazilian music can feel so light and effervescent, so sad and wistful at the same time. Though Isolation never returns to that sound, it’s a fitting introduction to a record that’s cocksure and easygoing, but also melancholy and aloof. Throughout the record, Uchis projects steely resolve and self-assurance; “Live fast and never die/ I’m moving at the speed of light,” she declares on “Miami,” and while the song is empowering, it’s also vaguely regretful: Uchis constantly pushes forward, she scrapes and she swaggers, she lays claim to what’s hers and doesn’t accept compromise; and she is almost always alone, solitude the cost of her freedom and mobility. The album is a full-length meditation on how autonomy can make true intimacy impossible; to give yourself over to another person, meanwhile, requires the sacrifice of personal freedom, a truth Joni Mitchell’s been singing about at least as far back as “Help Me.” And so these declarations of independence are also hymns of isolation.

There’s some irony, then, that Isolation is an album of blissful collaboration. Uchis, a Colombian-American soul singer, labored on the album for years, and by her own account killed off a number of pop trifles in favor of something richer, bolder, and more idiosyncratic. Her uncompromising vision won her many noteworthy co-conspirators: Isolation has cameos from Tyler the Creator and BIA, production assistance from Thundercat and David Sitek, support from Bootsy Collins and the Dap-Kings, and a co-writing credit from Damon Albarn. The record is audacious in its eclecticism, casually moving from the gentle caress of “Body Language” to the clenched and claustrophobic “Miami” and then never letting up from its freewheeling sprawl. (“When you fast forward you don’t ever look back,” BIA raps, in what might as well be the album’s mission statement.) It’s an album of thrilling juxtapositions: “Your Teeth in My Neck” is an acoustic thumper, recalling both the gnarled jazz of To Pimp a Butterfly and the analog allure of Mama’s Gun, while “Dead to Me” is a steely club jam, clothed in colorful, state-of-the-art synths. “Nuestro Planeta,” the album’s lone non-English language track, captures the pulse of contemporary Latin pop, and is immediately followed by the dingy, lived-in New Wave of “In My Dreams.” Uchis pulls it all together without letting the seams show, uniting the album around her unique aesthetic—one that’s conversant with hip-hop and keenly aware of the current pop charts, but also well-studied in indie rock studio craft and in classic soul constructions. Indeed, a couple of tracks here—including the swaying, sighing ballad “Flight 22” and the album-ending “Killer”—are unashamedly retro, the kinds of songs that could have fit on an Amy Winehouse record. Uchis could have made an entire career off of them were she not such a restless spirit, yet she hardly treats them as nostalgia trips: The throwback numbers feature some of her most playful vocals, as she clearly revels in the chance to engage with vintage tropes and lilting melodies.

The album is littered with dysfunctional relationships; in one song after another, Uchis stands in triumph, but also in solitude. One ex-lover is written off as a “Tyrant” while another—the one who stole her heart and broke it—is a “Killer.” “Dead to Me” waves goodbye to a hanger-on who mistakes obsession for commitment, and “Your Teeth in My Neck” takes on toxic relationships of another kind—the relationship between art and commerce. When Uchis allows herself moments of joy, there are strings attached: “Flight 22” is punchdrunk in love, but it’s set in an airport; its protagonists are both on the run, and their love is transient from the start. It may be telling that the album’s most unabashed love song is also its most retro-sounding, as though true union is just a story we’ve passed down—a theory that’s strengthened by “In My Dreams,” where Uchis is happy only in her interior world of fantasy. She is a tough-talker and a hard-boiled songwriter, generally eschewing sentiment and softness in songs that twist the knife: With the casual self-mythologizing of Cardi B., “Just a Stranger” flips the gold digger archetype on its head, portraying a woman who prefers money to love as a hero in her own outlaw anthem. It’s a ruthless and effective song of empowerment, but elsewhere, Uchis reveals some chinks in the armor. “Miami” is a song about how she moved to South Florida to make a go of professional singing, but when the money started rolling in, her family back home just assumed she’d become a prostitute. For women, even success comes with stigma, and the song’s flinty arrangement, head-bobbing but tightly-coiled, mirrors the ways in which the Promised Land can be a hidden trap. Both in its visionary execution and in its subject matter, Isolation casts Kali Uchis as a woman adverse to compromise; it celebrates her iconoclasm but also hints at the cost. “Just come closer,” she coos at the end of “Body Language,” reaching out for intimacy and connection. If only it were so simple.

Continuum: MAST plays Monk, Mehldau plays Bach

mast

It’s tempting to view songbook excursions in purely binary terms—assuming any re-litigation of a well-trod canon to be either an exercise in rote reverence or in cheeky desecration. A pair of new albums—both of them ostensibly jazz, or at the very least jazz-adjacent—have it both ways, exploring the contours of familiar songs and keeping the material both formally and spiritually intact, yet still allowing it to live and breathe in a whole new context.

Released for the great composer and pianist’s centennial birthday, MAST’s Thelonious Sphere Monk chops, screws, dissects, and bedazzles 16 Monk tunes—and just when you find yourself bracing for the next irresistible curveball, the album throws you a straight one, just to remind you of the skewed and enchanted beauty found in the originals. MAST is the project of L.A. guitarist and producer Tim Conley, who kicks these beloved songs down a staircase where they hit every electronic bleep and bloop along the way, but land without bruise or blemish: There’s not a song here that doesn’t pass through the filter of MAST’s colorful imagination, and not a song that’s anything less than instantly recognizable in its ravishing melody and off-kilter beauty. It’s an album where live jazz and trippy studio effects happily coexist: “Evidence” throbs with low end rumble and lurches through funhouse beats and samples before a full horn section comes in; the song cuts back and forth between trumpet and sax like they’re turntable samples, yet there’s visceral thrill to the horn players’ blazing fury and lively improvisation. It’s an album of thrilling transitions, too: As “Evidence” collapses into skittering beats, it melts seamlessly into the pulsing upright bass of “Bemsha Swing,” setting the stage for the clear melodicism of Conley’s electric guitar solo. Just as pianist Robert Glasper kept his Miles Davis tribute largely trumpet-free, Conley largely keeps pianos out of the spotlight here, highlighting the breadth and depth of his compositions rather than the rickety genius of his soloing—yet when Brian Marsella shows up to tickle the ivories on a fairly straight version of “Ask Me Now,” he connects the dots between Monk’s childlike whimsy and his roadhouse roots, proving that Monk contained multitudes. Elsewhere, Conley tests the resilience of these Monk tunes by letting them collide with more modern forms and tropes: A wobbly take on “Oska T” interpolates loose piano with a boom-bap drum beat, drawing a straight line from Monk’s wooziness to the punch-drunk beats of J Dilla. “Blue Monk” is done as a rattling headphone symphony, the melody carried entirely by the cavernous bass. An album-opening take on “Misterioso” allows Monk’s tune to drift in on a bed of synth ambiance and resounding gongs. “Epistrophy,” where a full horn section plays hot blues across breakneck drum ‘n’ bass, feels like the most maniacal thing here, until a late-album take on “Trinkle Tinkle” creates trance music almost entirely through the cling and clatter of percussion instruments. But no matter how much these songs are dressed up or dressed down, MAST retains their core appeal—their winking humor, their disoriented physicality, and most of all Monk’s melodicism, as unabashedly tuneful and romantic as Ornette’s or Billy Strayhorn’s. Only Monk himself composed richer, more imaginative Monk albums, and the triumph here is how Conley and his cohorts carry the torch of the composer’s own relentless reinvention—how he was always able to make these songs sound fresh again, no matter how many times he played them.

More austere but no less interested in songbook excavation as a catalyst for creative expression, Brad Mehldau’s solo piano album After Bach presents five Bach pieces—played with finesse and with passion—each followed by Mehdau’s reimagining. His ambitions are clear from the outset, as he spends just over a minute reciting the melody of “Prelude No. 3 in C# Major” before launching into his “Rondo” variant—the latter boasting an immediately recognizable melody but a looser, more languid pacing, the space between the notes transforming its mood from contemplative to gently swinging. Mehdau’s solo piano albums have long blurred the lines between classical and jazz (see Elegiac Cycles) and boasted knotty conceptual thinking (see 10 Years Solo Live), so it’s no surprise that After Bach offers something a bit more refined than a familiar “head” opening up to riffing and improvisation: Each of the “After Bach” pieces offers a thoughtful rewiring of the Bach original, with a “Flux” reading turning the “Prelude No. 10 in E Minor” inside out and a monumental “Ostinato” version of “Fugue No. 16 in G Minor” spending a full 12 minutes moving from expressionistic ambiance into a symphonic swell, gradually winding its way back down through classical precision and jazz abstraction. Mehldau presents a manifesto on timing and empty space, and as with the MAST album, he reinvents an enduring songbook without ever obscuring its resonant melodies. Most impressive of all is how Mehldau’s spritely playing and intelligent constructions make the album a warm and appealing listen, despite the fact that it technically plays each song twice in a row.

These two albums sound little alike, but make for accidentally illuminating companion pieces: Taken together, they lay out a continuum of classical music morphing into jazz, jazz evolving further into electronica; and, they both find progression in tradition, making a case for old songs as catalysts for new ideas.