John Prine, ‘Common Sense’ (04/21/75)

Common Sense is John Prine’s latest, and worst, record. The packaging is good taste with a bite: impeccable Revolutionary War lettering (is this the first Bicentennial album?), an old ancestral-home picture on the back and, on the front, a line drawing of a farm boy, foot planted firmly on the business end of a rake that is about to take his head off.

As a summing up of the album (and of the symbolic title song), this last image is confusing. What does it mean? That Americans are stupid? Or that they walk into trouble because they don’t look where they’re going? Or that if “common sense” once meant Tom Paine (or, Ben Franklin ), it now means Jerry Ford? Obviously, the kid on the cover cannot walk and chew gum at the same time.

“That common sense don’t make no sense no more,” sings Prine. “Hey, Queen Isabella/Stay away from that fella/He’ll just get you/Into trouble, you know?” Aw, gee.

Compare Prine’s “stay-away-from-America” lines to these: “I asked the captain what his name was/And how come he didn’t drive a truck/He said his name was Columbus/I just said, ‘Good luck.” There’s the immediacy of the language—Dylan’s lines from “115th Dream” are unforgettable, Prine’s so bland as to be almost impossible to remember—and there’s a difference in the demeanor of the singers. Prime is withdrawn, apologetic, full of pathos and implicit self-pity, and “folksy” in a terribly contrived manner (you don’t talk to a queen that way, etc.). Dylan is full of fun, a little crazy, and more than a little ominous. It’s the difference between “Don’t go, it’s not worth it,” and “Good luck, you’re gonna need it.” Between a loss of nerve and adventure. So Prine wishes America had never been discovered, ’cause that common sense don’t make no sense no more. There’s a hole in daddy’s head where all the good lines went…

Prine’s other tunes here are oddly automatic, self-imitations, like Tom Hall’s recent stuff. 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.

With “Common Sense”—with the song, and, in a half-hearted way, the album—Prine aims to take a potent American phrase and make us respond to it in a new way. Prine understands how deeply, and how ambiguously, Americans have fashioned their lives out of old watchwords and slogans; he wrote a fine song, perhaps his best, out of one of those old phrases, “The Great Compromise“: “I used to sleep at the foot of Old Glory/And awaken by dawn’s early light/But much to my surprise/When I opened my eyes/I was a victim of the great compromise.” The original Great Compromise brought on the War Between the States; in the song, the great compromise brings on war between the singer and his woman. Each fact adds meaning to the other; the balance is there, but because it works, it is mysterious. When Prine can pull off this great compromise, there is no point in settling for his common sense.

Village Voice, April 21, 1975

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