Review by Douglas Heselgrave With Lukas Nelson, Snoop Dog, Merle Haggard, Ray Price, Billy Joe Shaver, Jamey Johnson, Kris Kristofferson, Sheryl Crow and more
Heroes are harder than ever to come by in today’s world. And though it’s not immediately clear who or what the title of Willie Nelson’s newest album is referring to, there’s a certain sense of wistful nostalgia permeating the record that expresses a yearning for bygone days when simply rolling up your sleeves and putting your shoulder to the grindstone was enough to change things.
These are tough times, and when things are uncertain, it’s best to surround yourself with friends just like Willie has here. With able support from such weathered figures as Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, Billy Joe Shaver and Ray Price, Nelson is in seasoned company here. Some people may be initially unimpressed by the lineup that he’s cobbled together, - for after all Willie Nelson albums chock full of guest artists are nothing new - he’s recorded dozens of them over the years. But, ‘Heroes’ is a little different. First, it isn’t simply a rehashing of old material rendered as duets with up and coming artists. These songs – old as some of them may be – are new to Willie, and in most cases the assembled guests serve as far more than window dressing or extraneous extra voices. Saying that, as impressive as the musical roster is on ‘Heroes’, the real story of the album is in the dialogues between Willie and his son, Lukas. The love, respect and musical telepathy the two men share permeate every note they sing and play.
Whereas his last major label album, ‘Country Music’ reconnected Willie with the roots of his chosen art form and reminded his fans of his deep immersion into the America’s roots music traditions, ‘Heroes’ solidifies and reminds us of another of his artistic legacies – that of song interpreter and entertainer. As one of the few great singers remaining from the heyday of mid-twentieth century music, through his selection of tracks for ‘Heroes’, Nelson reminds us that in the past a song was just a song and boundaries between genres were blurred. Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles could sing country music and Hank Williams could sing the blues. The music was all that mattered.
In that sense, ‘Heroes’ scores a hole in one every time. From the very beginning of his career, Nelson has had an unerring radar for melody and recognizing a good song. To his egalitarian ear, it doesn’t matter if a tune was written by a grunge musician, a New York banker or an Irish share cropper from the last century. Only the melody matters, and the melodies that Nelson finds embedded in songs that many would have passed over are often quite staggering to hear. The most obvious example of this is his cover of Coldplay’s ‘The Scientist’, a song that in its original form was overly sentimental, cloying and frankly irritating. To hear Willie sing it, all of the artifice disappears to reveal a narrative that underscores all that is frail and delicate in humanity’s search for love and belonging. On song after song, Willie makes every emotion believeable. Nowhere is this more apparent or beautifully expressed than in he and Lukas’ duet of Pearl Jam’s ‘Just Breathe.’ It’s been a long, long time since a song could make me cry, but my eyes were full of tears the other night watching the sun go down as I hear Willie and Lukas’ voices effortlessly blend on the chorus as they sang, ‘Did I say that I need you; Did I say that I want you; If I didn’t I’m a fool you see….’ Hardly Shakespeare, it’s true, but the intonation and suggestion in their voices allude to a world of sorrow that is almost unbearable without love –however ephemeral it may be.
Some reviews of ‘Heroes’ have been very hard on Lukas Nelson, saying that his presence is almost invisible and that he’s riding on his father’s coat tails. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Rather, Lukas - surprisingly for one so young - is a virtually egoless player who is able to blend his voice so well with his father’s that they often merge to become indistinguishable. Two of his original songs, ‘Every Time He Drinks, He Thinks of Her’ and ‘Sound of Your Memory’ are featured on the album. The first is a fairly lightweight song that fits effortlessly into his father’s oeuvre, but ‘The Sound of Your Memory’ is a defining performance that provides an interesting lesson in songcraft when compared to the original version of this song that appeared on Lukas’ debut album. When it was first recorded, it expressed the regrets of a young man trying to cope with the ghosts of lost love, but in its new form, a timeless sense of resignation and haunted fortitude has replaced the sharp metallic pain of the original. With its subtle shifts in phrasing and emphasis on the beautiful cascading harmonies, it is a song for the ages that should remain in both singers’ repertoires for many years to come.
Other songs worth mentioning are an impressive cover of Tom Waits’ ‘Come On Up To The House’ that dispenses with the irony and aloofness of the original to be transformed into a gospel rave up with vocal support from Lukas and Cheryl Crow. Not surprisingly, it’s Willie’s goofy ‘Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die’ that’s been getting the most attention in the media so far. Featuring a who’s who of stoners on the chorus that includes Snoop Dog and Kris Kristofferson, it’s a lightweight if hardly memorable song.
At this stage in his career, Willie Nelson has nothing to prove to anyone. He’s done it all, and has recorded so many albums – up to six a year at different points – that they all blend into each other. In the end, ‘Heroes’ – like ‘Red Headed Stranger’, ‘Teatro’, ‘Country Music’, ‘Stardust’ and a few others – will be considered a standout and a very solid addition to an already unfathomable discography. Not to be missed.
This posting also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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