The Missing Years, John Prine’s first studio album in five years and his best since Bruised Orange, from 1978, is filled with idiosyncratic delights. The presence of a stellar cast of supporting singers (Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Bonnie Raitt) and players (David Lindley, Mike Campbell, Albert Lee) reflects Prine’s reputation. Yet the subtle production of Howie Epstein (bassist with Petty’s Heartbreakers) keeps the emphasis on arrangements framed by Prine’s acoustic guitar and sandy vocals.
Prine’s a funny guy, but his wit goes far beyond “Jesus the Missing Years,” the tall tale that gives the album its name. On songs like “The Sins of Memphisto” (“Sally used to play with her hula hoops/Now she tells her problems to therapy groups”) and “Great Rain” (“I was praying for mercy/And all He ever sent me was you”), Prine doesn’t just laugh to keep from crying. It’s simply his nature to see the punch lines in pain.
When Prine emerged in the Seventies, he was yoked with the “new Dylan” tag, yet his songs actually hew to a much narrower style. Though both songwriters draw from similar musical sources — blues, folk, country, rockabilly — Prine’s lyrics typically favor a narrative format, with his best efforts suggesting lean, evocative short stories. “Daddy’s Little Pumpkin” tells of a saucy woman whose memory clings to a rambling man like the scent of sex, while “Picture Show” unspools the big-time dreams that can inflame a small-town imagination. Prine’s collaboration with John Mellencamp, “Take a Look at My Heart,” is a smoothly rocking kiss-off directed not at the singer’s old flame but at her new beau.
Yet there’s an undeniable sweetness to Prine’s hard-living rogues, as the melancholy of “Way Back Then” (“If you loved me/Tell you what I would do/Wrap the world in silver foil/Bring it home to you”) turns into the struck-dumb happiness of “Unlonely” (“I feel like the only/Person in the world/That ever had a girl like you”). Past regrets and present passions come into vivid relief on the collection’s most moving song, “All the Best,” in which the singer reconciles himself with the woman who broke his heart: “But kids don’t know/They can only guess/How hard it is/To wish you happiness.” The kids don’t know — but the grown-ups understand.