Just for a minute, think about Larry McMurtry's T-shirt. Several years back, feeling passed over and generally bum rapped, McMurtry took to sporting a shirt of his own design, featuring a particularly nettlesome phrase from an unneighborly review emblazoned across his chest: minor regional novelist.
Better than a hair shirt, anyway. But think what John Prine could have done with such a garment. "Faded Folkie" his might have read. "Troubadour without Portfolio." "Bard without a Beat." "Sam Stone Was a One-Shot."
No more call for such an item in the wardrobe. Not for McMurtry, and not, at last, for Prine. Clothes like that are cut for different weather — times when, as Prine sings, "It's a half an inch of water/And you think you're gonna drown." Well, the sun's out and things have cleared. This is a peak record. It has a whole lifetime in it.
Bruised Orange is about getting lost, and being in love, and staying a stray in a world of fixed fates. The last cut on the second side, "The Hobo Song," is part envoi and part curtain speech, a wanderer's warm and desperate memory of an unrouted life on the road. The memory is not firsthand, though, and the image fades to sepia at the center:
There was a time
When lonely men would wander
Thru this land
Rolling aimlessly along
So many times
I've beard of their sad story
Written in the words
Of dead mens' songs.
This is a song about looking for roots in a rootless tradition, and the chorus ("Please tell me where/Have all the hobos gone to...") would cloy if it weren't sung just as Prine sings it: directly and without self-pity, but flirting with a sense of destination.
No matter when you play it, Bruised Orange carries the chill of Midwest autumn beyond autobiography (the title track begins its parable of bleak optimism with the recollection of a wintry childhood) into a kind of personal pop mythology. The chorus of "Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone" owes a lot less to Bob Dylan than to Sherwood Anderson:
Hey look Ma
Here comes the elephant boy
Bundled all up in his corduroy
Headed down south toward Illinois
From the jungles of East St. Paul.
But, of course, it owes the most to John Prine. This is not an album about a man finally finding his voice; Prine's already done too much good — if erratic — work for that. Rather, Bruised Orange is about a musician taking a chance and finding new limits, fresher expression. This is a man stepping right to the front.
You can hear the change — and the progress — most clearly in the love songs, which are funny and ironic without ever turning the other cheek and getting wise-assed. For Prine, a love affair is a free-fire zone, a combat between two insurgent forces, equally matched. Battles rage with passion and good humor, range from the bemused recollection of "There She Goes" to the wry testimonial of "Aw Heck," a half-sly, half-serious avowal of undying devotion ("I could get the electric chair/For a phony rap/Long as she's/Sittin in my lap"). The tone holds tougher and truer in these anthems sung with a bloody grin than in the morose "If You Don't Want My Love," cowritten with Phil Spector. Prine has better things to say just now about rug burns than about the bruises of misplaced love.
Steve Goodman is likely the best and certainly the most congenial producer Prine has ever had. Bruised Orange shows no strain, comes on a little too well varnished maybe, but sounds snug and comfortable, too. Goodman might have kept Prine from repeating some of his verses so often, but maybe that's just another expression of the good will, guarded and hard won, that pervades this LP. You catch it right away in the opening song, "Fish and Whistle," a sort of unruffled epistle to the Almighty ("Father forgive us/For what we must do/You forgive us/We'll forgive you"), and, more seriously, in the title tune, where the quiet caution of lines like "a heart strained in anger/Grows weak and grows bitter" seems to cut very close, passing through reflection into self-revelation.
This is John Prine's first record in three years. If that particular statistic got past you, it never will again. After Bruised Orange, people will be counting the days.