I spent yesterday getting acquainted with new albums by two of the house’s favorite songwriters, American John Prine, acquitting himself warmly in the twilight of his career, and Irishman Jinx Lennon, approaching–if not enjoying–the zenith of his. I strongly recommend that the reader, if she’s feeling as hollowed out and anxious as these times often make me, do likewise. The warmth, compassion, humanity and humor of these men is a tonic. I am still absorbing these works, but I’ll do my best to report their virtues accurately.
Prine’s The Tree of Forgiveness is his first album of original songs in over a decade. He’s battled through two rounds of cancer to return as a regular performer on this county’s stages, but most of the big fans I know (including myself) wondered whether he’d write any more tunes. Certainly it wouldn’t matter if he ever had: he’s done pretty well for himself in his life, with a repertoire that can stand with his fellow guitar-bangers Dylan and Young. I’m happy to report that there’s really not a bummer in the new batch: as with most excellent Prine LPs, there’s a balanced dose of off-the-wall whimsy (“Egg & Daughter Night, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone)”), convincing heart–and heartbreak–songs (“Boundless Love,” “Summer’s End,” respectively), and unadorned commentary (“Caravan of Fools”). Also, ol’ John knows how to end a disc, and while “When I Get To Heaven” has given some observers to worry after his health, the vigorousness of his performance and spirit here convince me it may take more than death to kill him. One thing I always listen for with Prine are smiles and laughs pouched barely discernibly in his delivery–like he’s about to break up–and The Tree of Forgiveness has many such moments. They’re a reminder to acknowledge the absurdity of earthly strivings, from a man who I wager has no regrets.
As far as songwriting goes, few smiths are as fecund as Jinx Lennon of Dundalk, Country Louth, Republic of Ireland. I haven’t heard every single album Jinx has released, but I’ve heard most of them, and none of those are less than very good. His last two, Magic Bullets of Madness to Uplift Grief Magnets and Past Pupil Stay Sane, both arrived in 2016, and, to my ear at least, were among the very best singer-songwriter records of the year.His strengths? Where to start? He has a compassion for working people that goes straight past theorizing to observed feet-on-the-street-detail. He has a gift for lyrical and vocal directness that can bring a listener more conditioned to irony, artifice, and obscurantism up short. His energy and delivery remind me more all of the time of Joe Strummer; his boundless bravery in standing up for the oppressed of Woody Guthrie. And? He’s one funny futhermucker for sure. His new release, helpfully titled Grow A Pair, embodies all of those qualities, plus dabs of two new ones: gentleness and relaxation. At 54, he’s still growing (of course!), and, as such, this is as good a place as any for a newcomer to jump in. While Grow A Pair begins oddly, with the darkly amusing “Now I Am in Singapore”–the next song, “Top of the Bleedin’ Morning,” is a perfect Lennon album-opener–it soon settles into Jinx’s familiar (forgive me, please) Stephen Dedalus-like stroll through the insults, obstacles, blessings, and inspirations of a day in our life–there’s even getting drunk, making love, and making plans at the end of the stroll. Along the way, prepare to be imprecated out of your sloth and hesitance (“Top of the Bleedin’ Morning,” “Grow A Pair,” “Stop Your Bummin'”), observe both battles and a dance of the sexes (“Newry Bird,” “Afraid to Open My Mouth,” “Wine Glass Goggles”), thrill to a lullabye (“You’ll Be Kept”), mourn the landscape (“300 Pianos,” “Black and White Scan,” “One Day I Awoke [to too much STUFF!]”), and ignore the landscape (“We Don’t See Anything”–observation is a key to Lennon’s music and to his advice to the listener). There’s prophecy, too, in “The Wheel Will Turn Again,” and while in the past Jinx has written succinctly about styrofoam cups, here he rhapsodizes from the subject of aluminum cans. That’s right: I used that word fecund for a reason.
As the Mekons once sang, it’s hard to be human again. But Prine and Lennon are voices that will give you support, so bend your ear, if you please.