Sharps & flats

For "In Spite of Ourselves," John Prine enlisted Iris DeMent, Lucinda Williams, Trisha Yearwood and others for a set of great country love songs.

Published September 24, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

There's a fine line between wry and bitter, and John Prine manages to hitch his wagon just this side of it. On "In Spite of Ourselves," the singer/guitarist's new album of romantic duets, there are a few happy endings, and a few more broken hearts. Prine, however, uses a sharp, tongue-in-cheek edge to keep the whole bunch from degrading into a mess of silly love songs.

The album is a bit of a departure for Prine. It's a set of duets from a perennial solo act, and a set of covers (by the likes of Don Everly and Hank Williams) from a performer known more for his songwriting than for his raw voice. With no illusions of a "happy ever after," these songs speak of fated, helpless love and star-crossed romantic train wrecks, regrettable breakups and unfortunate entanglements. ("We're not in love with each other/We're in love with our best friends," Prine sings on "Let's Invite Them Over.") The sweet, thin tunes are lean enough to avoid sounding maudlin. Even the sweetest of them -- like "I Know One," with Emmylou Harris -- have a bittersweet, minor-key fragility.

Prine collaborates here with alt-country artists like Iris DeMent and Lucinda Williams, as well as hitmakers like Trisha Yearwood and Patty Loveless. All these pairings ought to work: Prine is a consummate professional, and he's picked some of the best voices around. But not all the vocal marriages are equal partnerships. Harris' clear, soft tones, for instance, are capable of smoothing out Prine's voice, scratchy as old vinyl. But Patty Loveless' rich alto -- capable of belting out hits like "Trouble With the Truth" -- is withheld and wasted on "Back Street Affair," while Irish crooner Dolores Keane, who joins Prine for two tracks, sounds too creamy and cultured to pull off lines like "In a smoky bar/In the back seat of your car."

Among the disc's highlights are the four duets with DeMent, whose sessions with Prine kicked off the "In Spite of Ourselves" project three years ago. These include the quirky title track, Prine's only original song on the album, and the tender "We Could," which is quite possibly the happiest song DeMent has ever sung. The album's strongest piece is a clever medley with Lucinda Williams that joins "Wedding Bells" -- an ex-husband's lament about his wife's remarriage -- with "Darling, Let's Turn Back the Years," a onetime lover's woebegone wish to right past wrongs. "Down the aisle with someone else you're walking," Prine sings, to which Lucinda Williams replies, "Let's pretend that time has stopped/And I didn't go away." The verses could be the blissful conclusion to a long love story, but the two singers turn the song into a delusional tease. In the end, Prine is left alone repeating, "Those wedding bells will never ring for me."

Prine ends the album the same way. Despite the passionate declarations of the penultimate "In Spite of Ourselves," there's just a chorus of men to back him up on the final track, an old Tex Ritter song. "Dear John," they sing mockingly on the refrain, "I sent your saddle home."

By Rachel Elson

Rachel F. Elson is a writer in New York.

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