Contuining a collaboration with producer Don Was that began with A Moment of Forever (1995) and This Old Road (2006), Kris Kristofferson went back into the studio this year with Was to make Closer to the Bone, a spare, mostly solo set of new original songs. Major kudos to Was, whose work with and encouragement to Kristofferson is turning out to be the kind of fruitful treasure that Rick Rubin provided with Johnny Cash on the American Recordings series. Was has long championed the non-Cash members of the Highwaymen, producing solo albums for both Willie and Waylon in the ‘90s, as well as the Highwaymen’s third record, 1995’s The Road Goes on Forever, arguably their best. But unlike Was’s work with Willie or Rubin’s work with Cash, on which the producers fed those legends piles of great songs from other writers to sing, Was has pushed Kristofferson these last 15 years to get the notebook back out and to do what he does best—write great songs. And given Kristofferson’s drought before Was got hold of him, it wasn’t clear that we’d ever see much more from Kristofferson the songwriter.
Not that Kristofferson hadn’t already left a mountain-sized legacy. In fact, if you were born in the early ‘70s, just as Kris Kristofferson was getting super-famous, your first Kristofferson was probably the good-ol’-boy rebel from the movies, rather than the game-changing country songwriter. Kristofferson experienced peak commercial success in both music and film at more or less the same time, but even if kids in the ‘70s were familiar with radio standards like Ray Price’s “For the Good Times” or Sammi Smith’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night”, they paid little attention to who wrote them. However, the cool, handsome, bearded, silver-eyed, mouth-breathing lead in Semi-Tough and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore was inescapable. Kristofferson was able to combine his two careers, sort of, in the god-awful A Star is Born remake in 1976, playing a coked-out has-been rock star belching a tune called “Hellacious Acres” (“Go to Hell!”), sounding like Gene Simmons fronting the Average White Band. Kristofferson’s film career in the ‘70s might best be summed up, though, in his role as Rubber Duck in Sam Peckinpah’s trucksploitation flick Convoy, leaning into Ernest Borgnine’s corrupt cop and pronouncing, “Well, piss on you, and piss on your law”.
That outlaw attitude never disappeared from Kristofferson’s songs, and as recently as the late ‘80s, he was still writing enough angry leftist political songs to fill two albums, insisting that freedom is more than just another word for nothing left to lose, but an immediate tragedy in Central America and Africa—those Marxist criticism courses that Kristofferson took when earning an MA in English really stuck. Don Was convinced Kristofferson to lower his agitation considerably in the ‘90s and get back to the kinds of songs that made Kristofferson a Country Music Hall of Famer: slow, confessional meditations on matters of the heart. The social conscience in this poet was still present, but the raw-boned arrangements and Kristofferson’s increasingly leathery vocals made for music that hit harder than anything Kristofferson had made in over a decade.
Closer to the Bone continues this hitting streak, with Was sticking to the formula of acoustic guitar, Kristofferson’s vocals pushed way up front, and very little else. The title of the record brings to mind Kristofferson’s 1981 divorce album To the Bone, his most painful collection of tunes, and an album that truly gets closer to the bone than that ought to be excruciating. On the contrary, the new record is a sweet, contemplative set that considers love and family and the twilight of life. Kristofferson is 73, and true to the tough guy he’s always been—Golden Glove boxer, Rugby stud, Army Ranger, helicopter pilot—he’s not afraid to cast a wry look at mortality.
“Ain’t it kind of funny / Ain’t it just the way though / Ain’t you getting better / Running out of time”, Kristofferson asks on the album’s stellar opener and title cut. It’s a poignant line both optimistic and wistful for a songwriter who has often looked back with a desire for do-overs, as remarkable as his life has been. His life has been charmed—fame, wealth, good looks, fierce intelligence (he was a Rhodes scholar), athleticism, talent, children, longevity—but he’s the guy who asked, “Why me, Lord? / What have I ever done to deserve even one of the pleasures I’ve known?” So, on Closer to Bone, Kristofferson sounds more comfortable with himself than ever, singing that he’s “Sailing to the starlight / Over the Horizon / Open to the pleasure / Equal to the pain”.
The title song is embellished with some light percussion and mandolin, along with Kristofferson’s own harmonica breaks beneath his patented talky, craggy delivery. The line “Ain’t you getting better?” might as well be about Kristofferson’s singing. Kristofferson never could sing, exactly, which made his inclusion in the Highwaymen confusing to some fans. But Kristofferson’s voice has worn in, or out, like an old shoe in his golden years, and although he may have even less range than before—everything is more or less a low growl—it sounds warm and comfy in these acoustic meditations.
“Here’s one I wrote for my kids”, Kristofferson drawls in his intro to “From Here to Forever”, a touching dedication on a song so musically simple it sounds like it could be the first song he ever wrote. But we actually do get the first song he ever wrote, at age 11, as a bonus track at the album’s end. It’s no classic, and some of the other songs here are fairly pedestrian by Kristofferson’s best standards. “Sister Sinead” isn’t exactly timely, apparently about Sinead O’Connor getting booed off the stage at the Bob Dylan tribute concert in 1992. (It was Kristofferson’s arms into which she collapsed in tears.) Here, Kristofferson compares Sinead to Picasso and the saints as being misunderstood and labeled crazy. Perhaps, but the song feels like a leftover, nonetheless.
The quiet song structures on Closer to the Bone keep some of the melodies relatively flat, but there are a few winners deep into the album, including “Hall of Angels”, a lovely song about living with the worst kind of loss. “Tell Me One More Time” is even better, with its old-time gospel chorus about “the deep and starry splendor of your soul”. And “Let the Walls Come Down” is a slow mountain-folk stomper that isolates the essential parts of living after all the small stuff is stripped away at the end. While an old Kristofferson classic like “Lovin’ Her Was Easier” is likely prettier than anything he’ll ever write again, there are songs here that are begging for great singers to bring them to full-band life, as artists have done for years with Kristofferson’s old catalog. In the meantime, Closer to the Bone is a worthy and welcome chance to once again get up close and personal with the man himself.