After leaving their longtime label home at Warner Bros. Records following the 1978 LP Reunion, Peter, Paul & Mary went the independent, self-releasing route before signing to start-up company Gold Castle for 1986's No Easy to Walk to Freedom. Two albums later, Gold Castle had gone belly up, and the trio returned to Warner on a one-off basis for their second children's album, Peter, Paul & Mommy, Too, in 1993. The project went sufficiently well for the group to re-sign to Warner for a lengthier term, and the first fruits of that contract is LifeLines, which seems intended as something of a rebirth of Peter, Paul & Mary as well as a re-affirmation of their place in popular music. The format is the familiar one of filling a disc with guest stars, but this time that format has been used not to add a sense of trendiness to a veteran act, but rather to position it within a tradition. Peter, Paul & Mary always served as a bridge, connecting the older folk tradition of the Weavers and Woody Guthrie to the '60s folk revival, connecting the commercial and topical wings of that revival, and connecting developing artists to larger audiences. They do all those things deliberately on LifeLines, and a few other things besides. Peter Yarrow's anthemic "River of Jordan," which first appeared on his solo album Peter in 1972, concludes the album by combining Peter, Paul & Mary with the surviving Weavers, Pete Seeger, Fred Hellerman, and Ronnie Gilbert; three songs earlier, they had brought in Guthrie protégé Ramblin' Jack Elliott to join them on Guthrie's "Deportee." They also mix things up with some of their contemporaries: Dave Van Ronk joins in on a medley of "Wanderin'" and "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out"; Judy Collins duets with Yarrow on his "Take the Chance"; and Yarrow combines with Richie Havens and the Simon Sisters (Carly Simon and Lucy Simon) on his evergreen "The Great Mandala (The Wheel of Life)," first heard on Peter, Paul & Mary's Album 1700 in 1967. And they are joined by artists they have influenced: Noel Paul Stookey sings his "For the Love of it All" with Emmylou Harris; and Mary Travers duets with Holly Near on "Home Is Where the Heart Is" and with John Gorka on "24 Green Street." (In a match-up without category, she also pairs with B.B. King on "House of the Rising Sun.") Just as they introduced many '60s listeners to songwriters Gordon Lightfoot and John Denver, here Peter, Paul & Mary showcase up-and-comers Buddy Mondlock ("The Kid"), Sally Fingerett ("Home Is Where the Heart Is"), John Fischer ("24 Green Street"), and Cheryl Wheeler ("75 Septembers"), all worthy writers. And they also find time for their own compositions, among them Stookey's comic "Old Enough (Ode to an Aging Rocker)" and Travers' "But a Moment" (with music by Stookey). Of course, no Peter, Paul & Mary album would be worth the name without a heavy helping of social commentary, and this album has plenty. "For the Love of It All" is one of Stookey's Christian meditations; "Home Is Where the Heart Is" preaches tolerance for homosexuality; and "But a Moment" takes on Alzheimer's disease. ("Deportee" sadly remains a relevant reflection on migrant workers.) But the philosophical and political aspects of the music seem less important this time around than the communion of musicians who work well with Peter, Paul & Mary, supporting them when called upon, but leaving them the spotlight on such characteristic tracks as the medley of "Babylon" and "Oh Sinner Man," which could have been on any one of their albums dating back to the early '60s. Thirty-five years into their career, LifeLines is a major statement of who they are now and who they have been all along.
AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann