Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is 'Common Sense' by John Prine.
“Common Sense is John Prine’s latest, and worst, record.” – The Village Voice, 1975
A concise snapshot there of the contemporary critical view of John Prine’s fourth record, released in 1975 and shat on by all and sundry.
‘Common Sense’, in fairness to its bould self, had big cowboy boots to fill, coming as it did on the heels of three well-received records. His eponymous 1971 debut lay somewhere between slow-burner and instant classic, while ‘Diamonds in the Rough’ (1972) and ‘Sweet Revenge’ (1973) saw Prine ease more assuredly into the role of irreverent commentator. Prine was a well-regarded songwriter, by both his peers and his public. So what the fuck happened?
Consider again the Village Voice analysis: “The music is cluttered with back-up singers, horns, conga drums, strings, all to no apparent purpose; Prine’s singing, lackadaisical now as before, is subtly changed. Previously it was self-deprecating (that could make his singing funny, or painful, or both); now, it’s just slightly smug.”
Ouch…but look, it wasn’t all Prine’s fault. His fourth and final release with Atlantic Records brought with it a change in backroom personnel. In place of Arif Martin, who produced the first three albums, and taking Prine out of his comfort zone for this record was Booker T. & The M.G.s guitarist and Stax Records alumnus Steve Cropper.
Cropper was big stuff. Rod Stewart big. He had his own name to make, and if Prine’s biographer Eddie Huffman is to be believed, he was the driving force in this new direction. The theory or accusation holds up, considering what had come before and the subsequent return to traditional form of ‘Bruised Orange' in ’78.
The album covers too are telling. Prine features prominently on the first three records - sitting on a bale of hay on his debut, fresh-faced and unassuming, then in in extreme close up on the follow-up, bathed in warm stage light. By the hat-trick, he’s draped across the front seats of a Porsche convertible, world-weary and dishevelled.
‘Common Sense’ was the first Prine record, the only one right up until the mid-nineties, not to feature Prine himself on the cover. In his place this time was a naively drawn black & white cartoon of a yokel stepping on a rake - a disaster artist eternally frozen, blissfully unaware of being seconds away from calamity.
By the time ‘Bruised Orange’ rolled around, Prine was back out front in monochrome close-up, normality restored despite looking like an unwilling participant in a passport renewal photo. Maybe the ‘Common Sense’ cover was his concession that this was the least Prine-sounding record he had made up until that point…not in terms of quality, but in the diverse mix of styles and instrumentation that so irked the Village Voice scribe.
An equally derisive Rolling Stone review from the same year concluded that the songwriter’s gift for lyricism, “the foundation of Prine’s artistry, has dissipated into pointless frivolity.” ‘Common Sense’ is certainly more lyrically obtuse than his earlier records, its characters illustrated with broader strokes than those previous. Ginger Caputo and Dorian Gray come under fire in Forbidden Jimmy, the former some composite of Ginger Rogers and Truman Capote?
Who knows…the origins are probably as inexplicable as the calypso rhythm of the song itself. Come Back to Us Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard is named after the wayward heroine of the song (“Selling bibles at the airports/Buying Quaaludes on the phone”). Prine explained the mouthful of a title. “I often try to match a syllable for each note; I call it the Chuck Berry School of Songwriting. He's got it so dead-on that you can just read his lyric, and that would be a melody."
Rolling Stone's “pointless frivolity” dig seems a bit harsh, in hindsight. Not that Prine wasn’t capable of a bit of frivolity – Dear Abbie, anyone? He does seem to be having fun on ‘Common Sense’, though, with the absurd, situational comedy of something like Wedding Day in Funeralville sitting alongside the darker hued Saddle in the Rain. The latter is one of the record’s more interesting tracks, lyrically and musically - “I dreamed they locked God up/Down in my basement/ And he waited there for me/ To have this accident/ So he could drink my wine/ And eat me like a sacrament.”
This is the one where all of Cropper’s adornments work best - the rolling keys, soulful horn punches and occasional irregular percussive pattern edging the song ahead of those either side of it. My Own Best Friend delivers as succinct a sketch of a certain kind of restless Americana as you are likely to hear, just another anonymous, shitheap hotel caught in an infinity loop, where nameless patrons “check in, they check out/By the light of the colour TV's”. The horns this time around have more of a mariachi feel, and why not? It sounds pretty good.
Village Voice wasn’t completely wrong in its summing up of Prine’s bizarre, eclectic fourth album, but their scorn was misplaced. ‘Common Sense’ is all over the shop – country, folk, blues, soul, funk-lite, rock’n’roll (Chuck Berry’s You Never Can Tell closes out the patchwork quilt), calypso for fuck sake - and you know what, it’s all the better for it. Prine stretched himself, and even if he wasn’t entirely successful, this album is still one of those ones that keeps pulling you back for another listen. For the most part for sheer enjoyment, and for another part just to wonder: “What were they thinking?”