It’s hard to slag a legend. Not that I intend to slag Willie Nelson here but he is difficult to review critically. Like Dylan and Cohen, Nelson has approached an age and stage of his career where his mere presence is enough for most critics to raise a glass and say ‘hell yeah, take it to the limit!’. To assess the man and his music with honesty and objectivity is not as easy as, say, analyzing the pros and cons of the latest Flaming Lips/ Ke$ha collaboration. Because, in the end, the opinion on one matters more than on the other.
Still, to do this job right, one has to at least to turn a critical ear on the latest album. With Heroes, native Texan Nelson’s 68th studio album, he plays a set of straight-up outlaw country tunes. With guest spots by Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, son Lukas, and noted country and western tunes man Snoop Dogg, Heroes feels at times more like a tribute or a collaboration, not the proper Willie Nelson solo set that the album jacket suggests. Perhaps this is a minor complaint. Perhaps it is a fatal flaw.
Arguably the greatest country singer and songwriter of his generation (‘Crazy’, ‘Red Headed Stranger’, ‘Georgia on my Mind’) Nelson has never taken his foot off the gas. Frequently touring, recording an album just about every year over the past three decades alone, all while dealing with nasty IRS and drug enforcement officials and still he finds time to appear in movies.
All of this is more impressive when you consider Nelson could simply play the George Jones hand and endlessly tour the same package of songs year in year out without anything new to promote. But Nelson would rather dabble in reggae and jazz than tour as a Vegas act.
The songs on Heroes, as the performances, are a mixed bag. Perhaps as a means of getting the younger generation of listeners turned on to country, Heroes contains two alt-rock covers: “Just Breathe” and The Scientist” (Pearl Jam and Coldplay covers respectively).
“Just Breathe” is outright owned by Nelson and his son. The songs choruses are Heroes‘ loveliest moments: tender percussion, weepy slide, and two worn-out voices pledging undying friendship, fealty, and love. Can’t ask for much more in a song, can you? As for album closer “The Scientist”, it proves unequivocally that unlike the myriad American Idol hopefuls who gargle phlegm through Motown classics and call it sung, Nelson can wrap his throat around any song and make it his own. Both Pearl Jam and Coldplay should take note that these songs no longer belong to them.
And while both of these covers work surprisingly well, the Tom Waits cover, “Come On Up to the House”, though an appropriate choice for Nelson senior, is poorly executed by Lukas and Sheryl Crow, both of whom fail to sing with any authority on the cut.
There is plenty of first rate c&w music on Heroes to be sure. However, the decision to dilute the purity and vulnerability of Nelson’s voice with a gaggle of other singers robs the album of some magic. While the vocalists are not bad in and of themselves, the voices of Sheryl Crow and Snoop Dogg are more intrusive than helpful here. No offense to the aforementioned, but they can’t hold a lighter to the cigarette of Kristofferson and Haggard let alone sing at Nelson’s level. Willie doesn’t need the help.
In other cuts of note: “My Home in San Antone” swings with bourbon-aided abandon; “My Window Faces South” has Nelson rolling across the floor with a New Orleans swagger; “No Place to Fly”, a lovely duet between father and son, is heartfelt and sublime; “A Horse Called Music” is made memorable from the weary vocals of Nelson; and “Every tIme he drinks he thinks of her”, is authentic as horseshit on boot heels. These tracks work best because they play on the strengths of the Nelsons’ voices, the musicianship and solid song selection.
“Hero” is a majestic number with Willie’s voice brimming with sincerity: “Where is our hero tonight?” It is a question ripe with associations for 2012: a jab at the current democratic leader and his opposition. It’s a reframing of Nelson’s “are there any more real cowboys?” thesis from the 1980s. And one wonders if perhaps Nelson knows who this hero is, but he’d just rather not say. In this sense the song is unusually Dylanesque: Surface of simplicity with a core of complexity laying beneath each verse.
Through it all, the figure of Nelson always remains as strong and vibrant as an oak. Time and trial may weather him, but they won’t put ol’ Willie down. (His guitar picking, it should be said, timorous but not fatally so, shines on this record).
Heroes is fairly common fare for today’s country market. Not too old school (Nashville wouldn’t want that hillbilly sound interfering with sales) but not saccharine in that vile Clint Black way that pretty much ruined country music for me in the late 80s either.
Apart from the redneck retardation of “Come on Back Jesus” and the ubiquitous toker’s delight of “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die”, Heroes is an elegiac album; not so somber and grim as to be an aural burden, but an album fraught with humanity, fading pastures, broad skies plump with rain. The lyrics are shorn clean as a bone and are twice as dense.
Musically, Nelson’s compadres play without a hint of lethargy or of that buttery Nashville sound. These dudes just flat out play, surrounding Nelson’s noticeably weakening voice with moral and physical strength. All without stepping on his cowboy boots, too.
Heroes remains a resilient album despite some deficiencies. The reason? The voice. That holy voice! He may be a hell raiser but Nelson sings with the grace of an angel. If only we could have heard him wholly unaccompanied here, than Heroes might have been a masterpiece for Nelson’s autumn years.