One of the greatest country and western singer-songwriters of the last half-century returns with a startling reminder of just how affecting his music can be.
Even if its title were different, there still might not be a more death-obsessed 28th album in the history of music than Kris Kristofferson's latest offering, Feeling Mortal. Sure, the singer has always had a knack for the macabre anyway, but there's an acutely subliminal element of increased levity within the texture of these 10 songs that makes this a particularly striking -- and strikingly memorable -- set.
Originally recorded over three days with mega-producer Don Was, Feeling Mortal is the perfect Kris Kristofferson record: short, dark and simple. The actor/singer/scholar/football player/everything else a man could be never met a downtrodden story he didn't like and, here, he hits his audience hard with a baseball bat made of reflection-based wood and corked with self-doubt. Some may argue that his heavily toned swing is predictable at this stage in the game, but those would be the same people who still don't see the value in single-base hits.
Here, though, Kristofferson hits a home run.
“Wide awake and feeling mortal,” he sings, making it the very first thing listeners hear on the record. “At this moment in the dream / That old man there in the mirror / And my shaky self-esteem.” It sets the tone brilliantly for the rest of what's to come as the cadence for his words prove to be more "Sunday Morning Coming Down" than "Me and Bobby McGee". The singer has always been exceptional at crafting vivid narratives, but now he's finally able match his wise-beyond-his-years approach with an apt age he can now call his own. The result redefines poignancy.
From there, his sadness becomes infectious. "You Don't Tell Me What to Do" highlights Kristofferson's defiant side over a soulful harmonica and a slithering drawl. "My Heart Was the Last One to Know" and "Stairway to the Bottom" maintain that slow tempo, the former a perfect illustration for a dust-filled road, two broken hearts and hundreds of miles left to drive. "Stairway", meanwhile, could be played in any saloon south and west of Kentucky. "Well you've started again with the wife of a friend / On another night you hope you won't recall / And the wine that you're drinkin' doesn't keep you from thinkin' / Of the bitter taste that lingers in your soul," he sings in a voice that isn't a day younger than the 76 years he is. It's not that he couldn't have pulled the song off 50 years ago. It's just that there's no way it could have sounded this honest.
The tempo picks up a bit with "Bread for the Body", an electric waltz fully equipped with accordion and fiddle. Each chorus is lit up with off-setting vocal harmonies that suggest a backdrop of a hot summer night's barn party. "Ramblin' Jack", Kristofferson's tribute to his friend, folk singer Jack Elliott, uses the same kicked-up approach and features one verse he wrote years ago coupled with one he wrote while concocting the rest of this record. Only because of that tiny moment of trivia does a line such as “And if he knew how good he’d done / Every song he ever sung / I believe he’d truly be surprised" seem just a little more revealing.
Even so, it doesn't overshadow the most personable moment of the collection: At about the 0:56 mark on "The One You Chose", the singer can't help himself from giggling at the recital of his own words. It's a beautiful moment on an album filled with exponential beauty. They could have re-tracked the vocal, of course, but instead of eliminating the spontaneity and charm of the moment, someone – whether it be Was, Kristofferson or a record label executive – ultimately made the decision to leave it in the final mix.
It's great because it's contradictory. On an album centered around death, Kris Kristofferson's laugh – old and true, tiny and visceral – sums up where he is as an artist these days. When you're young, you feel invincible, and when you're old, you feel … well, you feel mortal. These 10 tracks prove that while Kris Kristofferson may finally be coming to terms with what it's like to be old, there will always be a young spirit running rampant somewhere within his soul.
The man himself might be mortal – we all are, of course. His music, however, is anything but.