Sweet Revenge is another side of John Prine, a departure from the nearly unrelenting somberness of his earlier work, and an engaging picture of the social being beneath the social conscience. It’s a more human work, more mature, and a step forward artistically and toward a wider audience.
Its folk humor (“Please Don’t Bury Me”) rivals any anonymous classic, while it is at the same time too distinctive to have been written by anyone but Prine. A pluggedin band provides a big-beat feel throughout, as well as the backbone for a few downright rockers, including the title song and “Mexican Home.”
Prine hasn’t gone so far as to cut himself off at his roots. “Christmas In Prison” is nearly as self-conscious and awkward as any ballad he’s penned about the System’s Victims. Rather it’s that his familiar concerns are being seen to better advantage from a different perspective: They benefit from a lighter touch.
Situations that might have drowned us in dolorousness (“Grandpa Was a Carpenter”) lose their maudlin quality through his uptempo delivery that slams the door on sentimentality. On “Dear Abbey” he takes a related tack. A chorus of the identical piece of practical advice frames stanzas of “comic” dilemmas until finally the message sinks in. Prine isn’t poking fun at the platitudes, he’s seeing the sense in common sense.
What might have been merely a joke (“The Accident”) is slowed down so we can hear the groans behind the giggles. What could have been bleak (“A Good Time”) is belied by a driving beat. He balances on edges: scolding without really insulting, stating his grievances without lapsing into self-pity. Prine is conjuring effects denied to simpler artists while putting to rest the rumor that he himself is simple. The result on Sweet Revenge is his best record yet.