John Prine’s early work, like that of most of the great neo-country songwriters of the late ‘60s and ‘70s, is simple, inhabiting familiar forms while providing a cheeky update of classic lyrical styles. His first few albums maintain a conversational, blackly humorous style, which allowed him to tackle domestic situations and political issues with equally withering aplomb. The music on these albums is nothing special (a base of acoustic guitar, a few organic touches), which makes the prospect of a stripped-down document like The Singing Mailman Delivers, an early recording from 1970, all the more exciting, offering an opportunity to hear the singer in gestational form.
The album is culled from Prine’s first studio session, paid for out of his own pocket, and contains the seeds of what would make for a string of great albums in the following years. But it’s more than a little disappointing to discover that the majority of The Singing Mailman Delivers isn’t really previously unheard material; most of these songs would appear, in modified form, on later albums, especially his 1971 debut. This downgrades the album from an essential look into an artist’s pre-history to a companion piece for longtime fans, its main lure being the curiosity of hearing the songs in slightly rougher forms.
This doesn’t affect the power of tracks like “Hello in There,” which strikes a perfect mix of sentimentality and sadness, and there’s a certain pleasure in discovering that Prine was capable of producing material of the caliber of “Illegal Smile” right out of the gate. The backstory provided in the liner notes, with the singer cobbling lyrics together in his head as he worked a mail route, offers slightly interesting context. There’s also an additional live disc, recorded during the period, that provides further novelty for the package.
The best way to approach The Singing Mailman Delivers is as a kind of shadow greatest hits, a picture of the artist in formation, detailing a specific point in his development. It’s the kind of thing Neil Young has been doing with his archival series, but isn’t quite as interesting, both because Prine has always been a generally static artist and because the live disc isn’t nearly as dynamic as the ones Young has been putting out. Still, with a stable of effective songs and a healthy dose of good humor, The Singing Mailman Delivers remains a likable, if not terribly compelling, effort.