In the course of making an album of deceptively slap-happy folk-rock songs. John Prine has managed to slip in some of the most delicate, compressed wordplay of his career. Indeed. Storm Windows strikes a stunning balance between the artist’s last two radically different releases. Bruised Orange (1978) featured Prine at his contemplative best, forcing a confrontation with his frustrated ambitions as a performer who’d never achieved the massive success predicted for him a decade ago. That LP was followed by 1979’s Pink Cadillac. as ragged and peculiar as Bruised Orange had been sensitive and sane. Ironically. Pink Cadillac was so successful at reproducing the Sun Records sound that it instantly became as superfluous as most rockabilly-revival discs.
Storm Windows shuffles between these extremes with a sly deftness. Recorded in Muscle Shoals, the new album utilizes acoustic guitars and piano as proper rock & roll instruments, and producer Barry Beckett always makes sure that the singer’s old-tomcat mewl dominates the mix. Though the LP has its share of melancholy ballads (e.g., “It’s Happening to You.” which builds to a complex and ambivalent climax while intentionally employing the most banal love-song clichés). Storm Windows extends Prine’s lyrical mastery into the area of jaunty rock & roll where good times regularly turn bad.
The finest of the rockers are “Just Wanna Be with You” and a speeded-up version of an old, unrecorded Prine tune. “Living in the Future.” Both contain lovely, cutting examples of a literary trick that only Prine, among current pop writers, knows how to use effectively: the insertion of a seemingly irrelevant phrase or image that suddenly illuminates everything that’s preceded it. Thus, in “Just Wanna Be with You,” the quatrain “Outside my window/A bird once flew/Now I don’t even care/What kind of gum I chew” becomes a perfect verbal rendering of the giddy distraction that a good love affair can inspire.
Like any skillful writer, though. John Prine doesn’t pull his apposite-non sequitur trick too often. He’s also fully capable of finding the sweetest, freshest way to express the silliest romantic commonplaces. In Storm Windows‘ swirling, surreal closing number, “I Had a Dream,” he mutters offhandedly, “I kissed your mouth/Till my head got light.” Here, his words and voice tell you all you need to know about his dreams.