At 84, Willie Nelson is a legend with a mortality complex. He isn’t withered, by any means, but he’s contemplative and heavy-hearted with God’s Problem Child, his 61st(!) studio album and, almost certainly, his most pensive collection to date. Mellower and more reflective than usual, with a sorrowful heart that weighs heavily over his collection, it’s easily Nelson’s most substantive, meaningful record in some time. Dejected but not completely discouraged, wistful without losing his inspired spirit, it’s an album with a weighted conscious and a forgiving heart, each filled with feeling.
“You had your run, and it’s been a good one,” Nelson notes in “Old Timer,” among the album’s most haunting and significant contributions, “seems like the world is passing you by…. Still got a lot of life and songs to sing.” Granted, Nelson is not one for subtlety, but through his aching voice and trembling, weeping guitar, the emotions ring true. While Nelson is a wicked soul with a youthful mentality, his body reminds him otherwise. He’s a hippie with a drifting mind floating inside all that flowing hair. Tied inside that worn out bandanna are persistent memories — both grand and miserable — which never escape the recesses where they reside. With the appropriately-titled “Your Memory Has a Mind of Its Own,” such longing and heavy introspection finally get a chance to float out. Nelson isn’t begrudging his impending death; he’s trying to let it come on his terms, with all the grace and gentle wisdom that come along the way.
That’s not to suggest that Nelson is drop dead serious, though. The cheeky “Still Not Dead” lightly pokes fun at false internet rumors regarding his death, while “Little House on the Hill,” the opening track, is nostalgic with an upswing, and full of cheery warmth. But there’s no denying the melancholy that resides over Nelson’s latest album, one that doesn’t make it gloomy but it does feel sterner and more doleful than your usual Willie Nelson joint. God’s Problem Child is a haunted, heartbroken collection of blues-filled tunes, but it’s never woeful or self-pitying. Instead, it’s as heartfelt and earnest as any previous Nelson album to date, with a touchingly sincere yearning present throughout which gives every song —whether goofy or gravely serious — an emotional resonance.
Indeed, old age sharpens Nelson more distinctly and deeply with God’s Problem Child. His lyrical, deeply-rooted songwriting is as strong and inspired as ever here, and even singles that might be controversial in another musician’s hands, like the 2016 election-fueled “Delete and Fast Forward,” play friendlier and fatherly than you’d rightly expect. Nelson’s music is as tender and natural as can be on this newest album, and there’s not a honest-to-god wasted moment in this 45-minute studio record. Everything feels true.
Rounding out the newest album first with the prayerful “I Made A Mistake,” then finally with “He Won’t Ever Be Gone,” which is a touching, loving tribute to his friend and frequent collaborator, Merle Haggard, God’s Problem Child is a moving collection with weight, poignancy and significance. There’s seemingly an immortality to Nelson and his bearded, smoked hazed ways, but if this newest one is truly our farewell, then it’s the right one. Like life, Nelson approaches death with wild passion and freeing essence.