In some circles the ultimate compliment you can pay any singer is that you would listen to him or her sing the phone book. Well, given that Willie Nelson has, according to his label, a catalog of more than 200 albums that have sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 million copies, it seems quite possible that at one time or another Nelson has indeed sung the phone book, and that someone somewhere paid for the privilege of listening. Over the last six decades, Nelson has sung with everyone from Julio Iglesias to, well, everyone else. On his new album, Heroes, he adds Snoop Dogg to the list, while bringing back old friends Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, and Sheryl Crow, and bringing in two of his sons, Lukas and Micah. It must have been quite a party, and the result is a record that is consistently entertaining and, at its best moments, is as compelling as anything we’re likely to hear in 2012. No, there aren’t enough of those great moments to mark this as one of Nelson’s best albums, but then no one in popular music has a perfect record — not, at least, since the Beatles broke up.
Heroes begins with a new rendition of “A Horse Called Music”, which Nelson previously recorded in 1989. This time out, it’s a duet with Haggard, and their two voices — Willie’s high lonesome nasal tenor and Merle’s whiskey deep, throaty baritone — blend together as well as ever. The song itself isn’t “Pancho and Lefty”, but then, what is? Certainly not the album’s second track, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die”, which has Willie trading verses with Snoop (Mr. Dogg?), Jamey Johnson, and Kristofferson (who must have been laughing his ass off). I won’t speculate what Nelson and his four co-writers were doing when they came up with this pleasantly irreverent novelty number, but I doubt it was legal.
Nelson’s most frequent guest on Heroes is his son Lukas, who contributes vocals to ten tracks and plays guitar throughout. If you’re not listening carefully, you might even mistake the 22-year-old son’s vocal’s for his old man’s. He also wrote three of the album’s tracks, all of which are superior to Willie’s own lightweight originals. Then there’s “Come On Back Jesus”, which features another offspring, Mikah Nelson, who also co-wrote the track with Willie and producer Buddy Cannon. It’s a pseudo-gospel, mock-reactionary song that yearns for the good ole days, and tells Jesus to “pick up John Wayne on the way”, presumably so they can kick some ass put things back in order. Like “Roll Me Up”, it’s nothing more or less than a pleasant throwaway.
Indeed, it’s funny now to think that Nelson originally made his mark in Nashville as a songwriter, getting his first big hit with Patsy Cline’s version of “Crazy” fifty years ago. These days his standout cuts are always covers, and his albums live or die on the quality of the song selection. This time out, the highlights are Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe”, which features Willie and Lukas’s most heartfelt duet; Tom Waits’ “Come On Up to the House”, which includes some powerful vocals from Sheryl Crow; and Coldplay’s “The Scientist”, on which Nelson demonstrates the full depth of his vocal talents. When Nelson sings the refrain, “Nobody said it was easy / No one ever said it would be so hard”, you can feel the full weight of his 79 years behind it.
Depending on your perspective, the fact that “The Scientist” was originally recorded as a promotional track for Chipotle restaurant’s sustainable foods campaign may or may not be relevant. But for a long time now — perhaps since his early ‘90s trouble with the IRS — Nelson has, for better or worse, been a hired gun. Or, to put it another way, he’s more like a movie star than an auteur. When he’s working with a producer who has a distinct vision for his singular talent, the results can be spectacular: just listen to the Daniel Lanois-produced Teatro or the Ryan Adams-produced Songbird, with its stunning versions of the Fleetwood Mac title track and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, to hear how good latter day Willie Nelson can be. Heroes isn’t in that league, but in its best moments it shows that he’s still able to reach, if not necessarily sustain, those dazzling heights.