Never an artist known to push himself harder than necessary, 2005's Fair and Square was John Prine's first album in five years, and his first set dominated by new material since 1995's Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings (a live album, a set of covers and a collection of new recordings of older material helped fill the gap). Of course, Prine had a fair amount to occupy him during that decade between new albums, most notably a bout with cancer in 1999, and while by all accounts Prine beat the disease with proper treatment, the man on Fair and Square seems a good bit less scrappy and more contemplative than the guy who cut Prine's most memorable material. The lyric sheet for Fair and Square reads like classic John Prine, with plenty of sly regular-guy wit and pithy observations on the state of life ("Crazy as a Loon"), love ("She Is My Everything") and the world around us ("Some Humans Ain't Human" and "My Darlin' Hometown"), but the spare, simple production (by Prine and engineer Gary Paczosa) and the rueful tone of Prine's vocals suggest a man who is just a bit weary, though that seems to be not a matter of health as much as advancing maturity and the world around him (with "Some Humans Ain't Human" explicitly addressing the War in Iraq amidst other recent failures of compassion). It's significant that the disc's "bonus tracks" are easily the most upbeat -- the funny henpecked husband's tale of "Other Side Of Town" and "Safety Joe," a witty warning about the dangers of too much caution. There's plenty of fine music on Fair and Square (Jerry Douglas and Alison Krauss are among the stellar pickers on-board) and there still isn't anyone who writes quite like John Prine, but for the most part this album is an unusually spare and subdued effort from an artist who usually can't help but crack a smile; with any luck he'll be feeling a bit more hopeful next time out, though this is still great music for a quiet afternoon.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming