This site is called The Young Folks – and it makes sense for youngsters to write music reviews, seeing as how most of the vital music produced at any given time is made by Young Folks. But not all of it. Not by any means. So here’s a review of an album by an Old Folk you may have heard of called Willie Nelson, which was released on his 85th birthday.
And it’s one of the best of the year. Following in the vein of Johnny Cash’s American Recordings series, Leonard Cohen’s You Want it Darker, or David Bowie’s Blackstar, this is a nearness-of-death album by an indisputable legend. And just like those records, it carries with it a hefty emotional weight created by the years, or decades, of emotional investment we’ve put into the man and his rich music. We’re glad that Willie’s one of the last men standing: he’s a beautiful human being. And we don’t want him to go anywhere anytime soon. This feeds into the album and makes us cherish it all the more.
Luckily for us, Willie’s not planning on giving up the ghost just yet. “Heaven is closed, and hell’s overcrowded/So I think I’ll stay where I am” he croons on “Heaven is Closed”. It’s a perfect line: Willie playing the country rebel by acting as if he has a choice in the matter, as if he could take on God at the game of life and win. He’ll stay where he damn well chooses, thank you very much. And his guitar-playing (on the equally withered and legendary Trigger) still stings in that song, and across the whole album. It’s as if he gambled with the devil, like Robert Johnson, but came out alive; Willie’s musical powers seem to eclipse all of those in heaven, hell, and earth.
Of course, he doesn’t take himself that seriously. And one other way he triumphs over death on this album is through a sense of humour that kicks the Grim Reaper in the face like a mule. “Bad Breath” is a song about ageing that is as funny in its own way as Miranda Lambert’s “Gravity’s a Bitch” or Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days”, tied to a simple, undeniable punchline: “The closer we get, you’ll have to agree/That bad breath is better than no breath at all”. And “Don’t Tell Noah” faces up to the mental deterioration that comes with age with this witticism: “Don’t tell me that I’ve lost my mind/’Cause I been crazy all the time”.
And the music doesn’t take itself too seriously, either. All of the songs were co-written and produced with Buddy Cannon, who also acted as songwriter-producer on Willie’s last album God’s Problem Child. But whereas that album was a little subdued, Last Man Standing comes roaring out of the fiery furnace of their imaginations for 33 minutes of upbeat blues, honky tonk, and country music that almost never let up. It rarely sounds like it’s straining, which suits the age and experience of the participants. But it rocks hard, with Mickey Raphael’s harmonica adding immeasurable wit and vibrancy (particularly to “Ready to Roar”), and Nelson’s own guitar and vocals sprucing up nearly every track with their immediacy and unpredictability in tone and phrasing (he’s regarded as a musical legend for good reason).
There is one exception to the hard-and-fast songwriting rule here, coming at the album’s midway point: “Something You Get Through”. It’s a slow and mournful piece about losing the one you loved. In its stately way, and with Raphael’s plaintive harmonica deepening the melancholy further, it works. The slide guitar embellishments are subtle, and the overall restraint makes you trust its wisdom. Which is more than evident from the lyrics: “It’s not something you get over/But it’s something you get through/It’s not ours to be taken/It’s just a thing we get to do”. It’s such a profound, simple, and elegant description of life and death – it makes me want to introduce the song to Mount Eerie.
Death is not the only theme on Last Man Standing – there are a quartet of punchline-heavy songs across the album that tackle politics, friendship, women, and the working class. But these just emphasise how much Willie enjoys life, and makes the death songs all the more painful.
This fun-loving man doesn’t want it to end. But he knows that one day it will. For now he’s the last man standing, and that will have to do. Because he knows that’s a miracle in itself.