YOU MIGHT EXPECT John Prine's recent tussle with neck cancer to have stimulated vexing intimations of mortality, but the roots singer is too smart to start capitalizing the "L" in life just because of a cellular glitch. And Life, as depicted by his duets on In Spite of Ourselves, means a messy series of accusations and infatuations exchanged over many years between a man and a woman. Sometimes the back and forth encompasses l-u-v, sometimes infidelity. Sometimes it necessitates sheltering one another from small-town gossip, or chiding your man when you catch him sniffing your panties. But it always involves two voices, in harmony or counterpoint.
From Lucinda to Emmylou, the nine women who pair and parry with Prine on Spite share only a clarion vocal resonance that chafes against the singer's ever-coarsening creak. The result is one of the most casually graceful sets of country standards, encompassing damn near the full range of Nashville's relationship topics. Star consort Iris DeMent not only demurely talks dirty (most brow-raisingly on Onie Wheeler's classic spouse-swapper "Let's Invite Them Over"), but also manages, on the album's Prine-penned title denouement, to exchange pledges of eternal movie love without instigating a gag reflex. And just in case you think that's some kind of final word, a Tex Ritter standby, "Dear John," closes the show, as sung by Prine all by his lonesome. Just because happy endings are impossible doesn't mean happiness isn't real, he seems to say. And who's in such a hurry to reach the end anyway?
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