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Bruised Orange by John Prine, released by Asylum Records in 1978. Listen
This artist is no secret. Bob Dylan named them as one of his favourite songwriters. Johnny Cash cited them as one of his few sources of inspiration. Bonnie Raitt called them the next best thing to Mark Twain. But up until a couple months ago, I had never heard any of their songs. And boy, was I ever missing out.
I've listened to plenty of other great singer-songwriters before, but still, right away, this one seemed special. There are familiar notes of folk and country here, to be sure, but it all comes together in a way that feels distinctive and refreshing. The lyrics are plainspoken but also whimsical; the vocals have a rough but also delicate edge; the arrangement is soft but also incredibly tight. Overall, the feeling I get is one of confidence and maturity. This is a songwriter who knows exactly what they're doing, and are doing it.
So what is this songwriter doing? Well, like any great songwriter (or novelist, or storyteller), they're looking at life and telling it like they see it. That's all this song is, at bottom: a couple slice of life stories, capped off with the moral that "that's the way that the world goes 'round". But the simplicity of this song's design belies the difficulty of actually executing on it. To look at life and see it clearly, and to depict it without sentimentality or cynicism, without preachiness or pretention, well, that's no easy thing. Yet somehow, this songwriter, great talent that they are, makes it seem like the most natural thing in the world.
But this songwriter is nothing if not deceptive. And it's not just the artistry that lies behind their simple song structures, or the poetry that lies within their homespun lyrics, or the depths of emotion that lie beneath their folksy vocal delivery. What stands out most to me is how you have all these songs that sound uplifting, jolly even, and yet they're dwelling on some of life's darkest stuff: episodes of domestic abuse, suicidal ideation, tragic death. And despite all that, there's still a warmth to this music, and often even joy and humour. How does the songwriter get away with it? How do they pull it off?
As I see it, the secret to these songs is their honesty. You can't philosophize about life unless you take it all in, the good and the bad, the easy and the hard. You need to have both if you want to have either. Messages of hope have no weight if they shy away from what makes us doubtful. And stories of tragedy serve no purpose if they're only meant as occasions for despair.
If you were only to listen to the chorus of this song, you might write it off as a series of feel-good bromides, like "it don't go no good to get angry". But to do so would be to miss out on how the message of the chorus is deepened by what we're told about in the verses: the tragic incident, witnessed by the songwriter, of when an altar boy was hit by a local commuter train; and the songwriter's recollection of their own personal experience with heartbreak. It's this specificity that saves the song from being a string of empty platitudes, and earns the songwriter the right to tell us something hopeful about life.
What I hear in these songs is a songwriter who's looked squarely at the brutality of life, and yet hasn't fallen into a state of desolation. Or more likely, they have, at times in the past, but they know that's not the right or only reaction you can have to life's sorrows, and they want their songs to go somewhere different: to lift us up, while not losing sight of what brings us down.
The name of this song, and the album on which it appears, is "Bruised Orange". It's an indelible image that never actually appears anywhere in the lyrics, and yet, once you know about it, you see it everywhere in these songs. It's an image that doubles as a metaphor for the delicacy of the human heart, and as a warning about the ill effects that such bruising can have, when one rotten orange spoils the whole bunch. It's an image that makes us feel the hurt of life, but also reminds us not to make it any worse than it already is. That's the songwriter's parting message for us, and in their hands it feels like a gift.
The Bob Dylan quote comes from an interview he did with the Huffington Post in 2009; the Johnny Cash quote comes from his 1997 autobiography, Cash; and the Bonnie Raitt quote comes from a Rolling Stone profile of Prine published in 2017.
I personally stumbled upon John Prine thanks to Jeff Tweedy, of Wilco, who mentions him in passing in his lovely little book How To Write One Song.
There is a touching video on YouTube of John Prine performing "That's the Way That the World Goes 'Round" in somebody's kitchen, sometimes in the eighties I'd guess. It also includes the origin story of the song's other name.
I was thinking a lot about the writing of George Saunders while making this episode, both his stories themselves and his writing about writing. Like Prine, Saunders has this uncanny ability to get at both the light and the darkness of life, often through humour, ultimately producing works that feel savage but hopeful and never, ever cheap. If you're unfamiliar with Saunders's work, a nice place to start is his Substack.
John Prine died on April 7, 2020, from complications caused by COVID-19. Half of his ashes were scattered in Kentucky's Green River, a homage to a lyric from "Paradise", from his 1971 self-titled debut album:
When I die, let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester Dam
I'll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waitin'
Just five miles away from wherever I am.
Rest in peace, John Prine.