Willie Nelson “Heroes” CD Review – A scientist will make you think twice

May 21, 2012 1:16 pm

Willie Nelson is the last gun in town and the outlaw country he built up with his bloody-fisted, tender-hearted cowboy friends is nothing more than a ghost town these days. Ryan Adams and alt-country took what they could and packed up their horses a couple of years back and Nashville…. well, Nashville is still the same shining Cadillac pretending to be a Chevrolet that Willie, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings were shooting against when they started. But that strange falsetto is still whistling and cracking, the tapes keep picking it up and this album of jigsaw contributions is cause to celebrate the one lawless guitar slinger who hasn’t ridden off with an angel yet.

Beginning with the stately “A Horse Called Music” there is something both defiant and definite within these fourteen songs. The band play sweet and gentle while Willie leans close to the mic and begins to wrap stories around the words; the lyrics tell a little of the story but his weary, road worn tones weave an unspoken narrative, doing so without the faltering, false sentimentality so beloved of much modern country. Within moments this album feels significant, which is telling considering it stands alongside at least sixty other records.

Through good records and bad records, riches and then the IRS, there’s one thing Willie has always done well: weed. Kris Kristofferson and Jamey Johnson make an appearance on the jovial, rollicking “Roll Me Up When I Die” along with a laconic but reasonably tuneful Snoop Dogg. One imagines Snoop’s respect for Willie didn’t initially stem from their mutual love of honky tonk piano and wailing blues harp, although fondness for the pigtail may have been an ice breaker. The song is a light riff of chronic fun and none the worse for that: kitsch-country, it’s a thing now.

While Willie is the king of genre-crossing collaborations, the album feels unsettled and out of balance as a set. Too many guests making too many appearances don’t help the matter. We witness the talent of Lukas Nelson in his writing; “Every Time He Drinks He Thinks of Her” comes in with a train-whistle harmonica and a barrelling bass and splashes about like tear drops in a beer tankard. Frustratingly though, it’s like coming to a party to catch up with the host and finding yourself unable to shake a stranger: it feels as though Willie is dropping out for a drink whenever there’s a second verse. Then, marching like a magnificent New Orleans parade, Tom Waits‘ stirring “Come On Up to the House” sees Sheryl Crow dancing off honky-tonk piano trills and providing a soulful partner to the reedy somnolence of Willie’s vocals but as Lukas creeps in something is lost. Two’s company…

Two original songs, “Hero” and “Come on Back Jesus” remind us that even if there are fewer songs coming out of the cabin, Willie is just being frugal with his ink. The originals have a powerful, affecting quality, the lyrics simple but potent; ‘Time to take off the glove/They just don’t respect peace anymore.’ The tributes and the laments shared are the most genuine, real statements of an entire album which takes an every-flavour approach in an attempt to cover the most ground and presumably appeal to the largest audience possible. Yet these two songs alone tie in country, jazz, blues, soul, and Dixie and everything Willie is and can be and as a result, feel the most coherent pieces here. Whereas a cover of Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe” is pretty but pretty contrived, his own work feels like it could draw in a rock audience by itself.

And then comes “The Scientist.” Though this song seemingly has “play me acoustic!” written into every bar, Willie and Trigger freshen it like never before. The warmth and poignancy here runs deep, from the echoes of lap steel guitars playing wildly in the background to the cracks and splinters in Willie’s delivery. It’s a rendition to halt conversations, to crowd words on the tips of tongues. The beauty and sadness is tied up in feeling Willie’s age, in wondering if this could be a goodbye. Then it hits me; Heroes could have been Willie Nelson does American Man 4 and we might have all loved it and praised the way our hearts were breaking in 4/4. But as Willie was never as grave as Johnny Cash; this is Willie being Willie, having some fun and playing with his friends and family, playing for the joy. And suddenly the complaints don’t seem so important anymore; yes the album is crowded, of course it goes everywhere and is a clashing patchwork of songs but one of the most enduring charms Willie Nelson has ever had is trying everything and trying it with sincerity and humility. So Stetsons tipped with respect- if it is a goodbye, it’s not a painful walk into the desert night, it’s riding away without holding the reins, waving with both hands… smiling.

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