Welcome back to the music world, Kris. We've sorely missed you!
If you asked the average person on the street today about Kris Kristofferson, chances are they’d tell you he is an actor. And while it’s true that Kristofferson has made quite the name for himself because of his cinematic accomplishments, many songwriting fans still fondly recall his classic works, like “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”, which includes lines like, “I woke up this morning/ With no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt.” Whatever happened to that maverick Nashville songwriter, and why don’t we hear gut-level honesty like that on country radio anymore? Kristofferson was, after all, one quarter of The Highwaymen; a country Mt. Rushmore, if you will, that included Willie Nelson, as well as the late Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. Musicians have been known to dabble in acting now and again, it’s true, but Kristofferson immersed himself so fully into the thespian life, he almost completely abandoned his songwriting past—at least until now.
But before Kristofferson intentionally removed his songwriting hat, he first walked away from his highly personalized approach to writing lyrics. This meant that he left behind the sort of memorable hangover observations expressed by “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”, in favor of a much more overtly political perspective. Sadly, the road he travels now looks a lot like that stridently political path he previously traversed just prior to when the acting bug bit. For instance, Kristofferson name-drops fellow activist-songwriters, such as John Trudell, Steve Earle, Merle Haggard, and Willie Nelson on “Wild American” here.
Kristofferson’s current musical direction is one that takes stock of the aging revolutionary’s life. On “Pilgrim’s Progress” he sings, “Am I young enough to believe in revolution?” Aging is also explored through photographs that jar his memory during this CD’s title track, whereas “The Last Thing to Go” alludes to what is gained and lost through accumulated years of life. Kristofferson introduces “The Last Thing to Go” with these spoken words: “The great featherweight champion Willie Pep once said that the first thing to go is your legs, then it’s your reflexes, then it’s your friends.” Kristofferson sings in this song’s chorus that love is the last thing to go, which is a line that lingers in the air as an undeniably sweet sentiment.
The war in Iraq looms conspicuously large over many of these songs. Nevertheless, Kristofferson has also been touched by other non-military current events, and these observations also seep into his songs. For instance, “In the News” mentions the Laci Peterson murder. “Chase the Feeling”, on the other hand, finds Kristofferson delving into the troubles caused by drug addiction. Its chorus warns, “Chase the feeling till you die.” About the only straight out love song of this bunch is “Thank You for a Life”, which may well be a romantic ode to his wife.
Big time producer Don Was manned this CD, but surprisingly it’s an extremely lo-fi effort and mainly comprised of acoustic guitar-backed songs. It’s colored by harmonica and mandolin at times, such as on “This Old Road”. However, there are very few instrumental elements in this mix. An exception to this overall approach, though, is “Chase the Feeling”, which includes standup bass, shuffling drums and a driving rhythm. Although it’s primarily an acoustic project, “The Show Goes On”, which reflects back upon Kristofferson’s wild rock & roll lifestyle, still rocks in its own gentle sort of way.
Kristofferson has never been any great shakes as a vocalist, so his sandpaper singing here sounds exactly like it did back in the ‘70s. Age has given his phrasing more authority and power, though. He’s seen and experienced plenty in his lifetime, which makes him a voice well worth respecting.
It’s great to have Kristofferson back writing songs again, although it still feels like he’s only half the way back. He’s obviously pissed-off about the war in Iraq, as well as the general conservative political climate in America. But Kristofferson, the observer, is a rare breed, and one that is an endangered entity in today’s overly self-centered songwriting atmosphere. Kristofferson has returned to the musical road, and it’s nice to have him as a fellow traveler once again. Let’s just hope this isn’t his last step for a while, however. As good as this effort is you have to believe that he still has winning cards he’s not yet showing.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.