I love John Prine’s music too much to want to analyze it. People have been comparing him to Mark Twain, but I keep thinking of him as the Vermeer of American songwriting. There are no throwaway characters in Prine’s songs. Everyone is interesting, nothing is out of place, and the rooms are always perfectly lit.
I first learned his music at Cottonwood Gulch. He wrote two immortal standards in the Gulch songbook, “Angel from Montgomery” and “Paradise,” the latter such a perfect piece of songwriting that it sticks in your mind whole on one listen. I remember precisely where I was when I heard “Paradise” for the first time. Compare to a paler, mushier song with a similar concept, James Taylor’s “Copperline.” (My relationship with Taylor's music could be the subject of a book-length study.) Both songs remember a now-gone place from childhood. But Taylor is uncomplicated, saccharine, while in Prine’s music there is always acid to cut the fat, humor to leaven the sadness. In the case of “Paradise” there is real and human anger beside the nostalgia.
He gets the details out quick in that first verse, so he can luxuriate in the second with a gorgeous moment of exposition. This is the verse that starts, “Sometimes we’d travel right down the Green River.” That verse doesn’t actually advance the story, it only buoys up the emotion of it. And then in the last verse there is the real blood of “Paradise,” which is its political position (i.e., Fuck the coal company.)
Prine’s songs suggest a man who has looked the sadness of life in the eye while maintaining a glimmer in his own. For example there is “The Late John Garfield Blues,” which is exactly the kind of song I want to write: it’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery, but like in the Poe story, he can’t quite hide the heartbeat beneath the floorboards.
(I’ve been thinking about Poe lately, because he wrote one of the plague masterpieces in the English language, “The Masque of the Red Death.” What a great story. Gorgeous, creepy, brutal. And check out how much exposition there is! He takes you through every room, drawing the scene in exquisite detail, so it’s all the more horrifying when it all comes crashing down. Shout-out to my ninth-grade English teacher Adam Witte, who read it aloud to us on Halloween.)
Then of course there is “Christmas in Prison,” with one of the great first lines ever composed: “It was Christmas in prison, and the food was real good.” Another Prine favorite of mine is “Unwed Fathers,” where the playful rhymes almost distract you from the ice-cold tragedy of the story. At the 2017 Eaux Claires festival, Justin Vernon organized a group-skate John Prine covers set, and this version of “Unwed Fathers” got me the other night.
Another one that might rip you open right now is “Everything is Cool.”
Then there was Adam Schlesinger, who I associate most with the endless hooks of Fountains of Wayne. This Jody Rosen piece is a thoughtful appraisal of Schlesinger’s achievements.
I think of Schlesinger primarily as a great melodist—I’m tempted to say “once-in-a-generation melodist,” though he may have to share honors with Ben Folds, who was born the previous year. This is a rare gift. There are a lot of great songwriters, creators of powerful work, even epoch-defining work, who are not great melodists. Those who can really spin a tune, and can do so over and over again as if on command, are to be treasured, and when you lose one, it’s a moment for grieving.
In his own way Schlesinger was a songwriter’s songwriter, a practitioner of the old-school, melody-and-chord-change craft that puts him in the lineage of people like Porter, Arlen, Rodgers, and yes, Billy Joel. That said, his aesthetic was of his moment, not theirs. I’ll speak about a few songs from Welcome Interstate Managers, because it came out on June 10, 2013, days after I graduated from high school.
The phrase “power pop” is often used to describe this music. When I listen to “Mexican Wine” today, I remember myself as a teenage music snob who went around with his bandmates making fun of four-chord music. We even had a sort of I-V-vi-IV mashup we would do at live shows, pointing out how many famous songs fell into these pat chord changes; as fans of songwriters like Jason Falkner and Elliott Smith, we thought ourselves more sophisticated. But it turns out the question is not so much which chords you use, but how they are deployed, and the issues of phrasing, harmonic rhythm, and melody melody melody deepen in subtlety.
So there they are, right at the top of “Mexican Wine,” loud and unapologetic, I-V-vi-IV. But that melody! And the simple harmony that joins it, a third below, with that slide to the non-chord tone on the word “mine.” Schlesinger has at least one harmonic trick up his sleeve in this song, too: the chord substitutions that appear on the last verse, with a secondary dominant intensifying the move to vi, and the classic iv dramatizing the return to I for the last chorus. A nice touch to give the second half of the song some momentum.
In remembrances of Schlesinger there seems to be a less than wholehearted acceptance of “Stacy’s Mom,” perhaps owing to evolving sexual politics, but maybe these commentators didn’t graduate from high school the month this song came out. “Stacy’s Mom” is a classic song-of-the-summer; it was for 2003 what, say, “Call Me Maybe” was for 2012. Both songs made me think, wait, why isn’t pop music always this fun?
When you look up lyric-and-chord charts on the internet you’ll sometimes see claims of dubious formal elements. Amateur musicians sometimes disagree on what exactly a “bridge” is, for example. I usually narrow my eyes when I see a section described as a “Pre-Chorus.” But that’s exactly what’s going on in “Stacy’s Mom.” The verse proper is a square 16 bars, and the “Pre-Chorus” is the four-bar lead-in that goes from iii to IV to iii and back to IV. It’s delaying the chorus, basically — making you want it more. In the chorus the harmonic rhythm is two beats per chord until, under the words “not the girl for me,” he does the same trick as that last verse of “Mexican Wine,” using a secondary dominant to vi, this time in inversion (much confusing the online chord-chart makers), and then gives you that last IV-V-I in a slower harmonic rhythm. I (IV) know it might be wrong but, (V) I’m in love with Stacy’s (I) mom. Cadence. Also worth mentioning the key change: here the shift, for the instrumental break, is from E Major to G Major—the old modulation by chromatic third, more commonly seen in Schubert or, say, Jerome Kern than in contemporary American pop.
I’m thinking of this interview with Jon Brion, where he makes a distinction between a “song” and a “performance piece.”
In Brion’s taxonomy, something like Rihanna’s “We Found Love” would qualify as a performance piece, not a song. I give this example because it is one of my favorite pieces of music in the world. This is no insult, but I can’t sit down at the piano and give you a version of “We Found Love” that means anything or makes any sense. It’s not transferable from its specific sound and context. That’s why I draw a line from Schlesinger to the Great American Songbook: these songs transfer, just as melody, lyric, and chord change—take away the drums and distorted guitars, and they still work.
It’s been commented that Schlesinger’s was a Gen-X sensibility. I was thinking about this idea when I revisited “Hey Julie,” from the same record. A while back, in an interview with Ezra Klein, I heard the author John Higgs spin some (admittedly speculative and anecdotal) theories about Gen-X vs. Gen-Z in the context of The Breakfast Club. He observed that, watching the movie with some younger, Gen-Z folks, they perceived the drama totally differently. For them the assistant principal is not the reflexive villain. They aren’t trained to react against authority in the same way, and see him as a guy enmeshed in a larger system, just trying to do his job,. For them the punk guy is not a hero, just a jerk; the perceived protagonist was the nerdy brainy kid Brian, and the dramatic apex was when he admits that he had considered suicide.
“Hey Julie” doesn’t beg of over-analysis, but I did think of Higgs’ theory when I considered the song’s depiction of the boss-man. (“Working all day for a mean little guy with a bad toupee and a soup-stained tie.”) Nowadays it strikes us as just kind of mean to make fun of this man for his bad fashion sense—and certainly for his body type and hair loss. Besides, he’s just middle management, not a billionaire one-percenter. We’ve become less focused on immediate power dynamics, more concerned with larger systems of oppression. We know who the real victims, and the real villains, are.
• Gone Walkabout
• Music as Drama
• Crossroads II
• 10 Best of 2014
• January: Wyoming and the Open
• February: New Mexico and the Holes
• Coming Up
• Notes on The Accounts
• Crossroad Blues