Album Review: The Singing Mailman Delivers by John Prine
Great, Based on 4 Critics
Rolling Stone - 100 Based on rating 5/5
Before John Prine's 1971 debut got him dubbed the next Dylan, he was a Chicago mailman playing his homespun folk tunes at an open mic. These two discs contain a radio appearance and a live set right before he went national (the title is the headline of a review by Roger Ebert). It's a fine introduction to a richly imagistic Midwestern everyguy whose languid good nature defied singer-songwriter smugness – from the stoner anthem "Illegal Smile" to "Great Society Conflict Veteran’s Blues" (later renamed "Sam Stone"), during which the audience joins Prine's brokenhearted chorus, "There's a hole in Daddy's arm where all the money goes," with a lamenting familiarity.
When John Prine released his self-titled debut album in 1971, it seemed as if a major new songwriter had miraculously appeared out of nowhere (or Chicago, which to many folks seemed like roughly the same thing at that time), and this set of early Prine recordings suggests that his gifts as a writer appeared fully formed without a long gestation period. The Singing Mailman Delivers includes Prine's first demo tape, cut at a Chicago radio station in August 1970, and a recording of the songwriter on-stage at a Windy City folk club three months later, both put to tape when Prine was still holding down a day job as a letter carrier. The studio tape is as simple as can be, just Prine and his guitar, and the voice has a bit less of the drawl he would affect later on (which always seemed a bit suspect from a boy born and raised in Illinois), but the songs, all but one of which would appear on his early albums, make clear he already had a singular lyrical voice -- witty, literate yet plain-spoken, and mature beyond his then-24 years -- and he could deliver his material with a casual confidence that was winning.
It’s been 40 years since the release of John Prine’s eponymous debut album, a classic singer-songwriter record if ever there was one. So now is as good a time as any to celebrate the man’s songs, which have always been more complex than they first appear. They’re both witty and emotive, heartbreaking yet life-affirming, slice of life yet thoughtful and penetrating.
John Prine’s early work, like that of most of the great neo-country songwriters of the late ‘60s and ‘70s, is simple, inhabiting familiar forms while providing a cheeky update of classic lyrical styles. His first few albums maintain a conversational, blackly humorous style, which allowed him to tackle domestic situations and political issues with equally withering aplomb. The music on these albums is nothing special (a base of acoustic guitar, a few organic touches), which makes the prospect of a stripped-down document like The Singing Mailman Delivers, an early recording from 1970, all the more exciting, offering an opportunity to hear the singer in gestational form.