At this point, what could possibly be said about Kris Kristofferson that hasn’t already been said? His life is modern day folklore:
Rhodes Scholar/boxer/helicopter pilot/janitor/actor/Highwayman/political activist/Mount Rushmore of singer-songwriters.
He’s become one of those rare public figures that justifiably elicits oooohs and aaaahs at the mere mention of his last name. Want to learn how to write a song? Enroll in Kristofferson 101, grasshopper. Snatch the pebble from his hand. Want to watch a master thespian effortlessly rip up the scenery? Watch Lone Star. If you can find a better acting performance anywhere ever, I will kiss your ass on the courthouse steps and give you three days to draw a crowd. Obviously, I say this with great confidence. And this is not to say that Kristofferson hasn’t dialed one up now and again. (2001’s ‘Planet of The Apes’, anyone? I didn’t think so.) But it’s a gig, man. The wolf is at the door. A guy’s gotta eat.
However, there’s one constant throughout Kristofferson’s life and career : he never got above his raisin’ (Brownsville, Texas, thank you very much). There has never been a single iota of pretense or highfalutin nonsense in him. He always kept the grass down where the goats can get it. No bullshit 100% of the time. He’s painfully honest, the living breathing embodiment of three chords and the truth. Down to earth. You can understand where he’s coming from. He’s real.
And he’s done all this with a voice that isn’t exactly a prime candidate for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Quite frankly, he sounds like your grandpa coming off a bender. Like cowboy boots on a gravel road. Dust and a flat tire. But his voice sticks with you. It commands you to listen. Like hearing Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash, you have to stop what you’re doing and pay attention. Wisdom is being imparted and by God, I’m not going to miss it so shut up. That kind of voice.
(I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to hear a perfect voice. Why would someone in their right mind want to hear such a thing? It doesn’t sound like me, so I can’t relate to it. It sounds like someone failing at perfection. Like show business.)
So how does Kristofferson begin Feeling Mortal (his 25th record)? With only his voice singing these words:
Wide awake and feeling mortal
At this moment in the dream
That old man there in the mirror
And my shaky self-esteem
Right out of the gate, he throws down the gauntlet. This will be a record sung in an imperfect voice to other imperfect voices.
A fairly short CD, Feeling Mortal is 10 songs about death and mortality, life, love, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. It’s simple and straightforward–no studio trickery, no spit and polish, no artifice, no varnish. Producer Don Was wisely steps back and lets Kristofferson work his craggy magic. Most of the songs start with an acoustic guitar and Kristofferson’s voice, slowly revealing the band one instrument at a time. It’s almost like he told the pickers to just come in when they feel like it: “Boys, just go where the song leads you.” So that’s what they did, following his lead straight into a diamond mine. The results rank with Kristofferson’s best.
‘Stairway To The Bottom’ sounds like a country song from the ‘60s, complete with pedal steel and a moral to the story. ‘You Don’t Tell Me What To Do’ is a personal statement: no one tells him what to do. Period. Outlaw as ever. In ‘The One You Chose’, he struggles to reach a few notes. He breaks into a laugh twice. His voice cracks. They could have gone back and gotten different vocal takes, but what for? He may struggle for a note, but he never struggles for the heart. He hits that bullseye every time, note be damned. So if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Just look at these lines from ‘Castaways’:
Just like a ship without a rudder, I’m just drifting with the tide
Each day I’m drawing closer to the brink
Just a speck upon the waters of an ocean deep and wide
I won’t even make a ripple when I sink.
Seriously, how perfect is that lyric? It’s sad, self-deprecating, doom-laden, and funny ALL AT THE SAME TIME. It feels handed down from the mountain. My mouth is still open in amazement.
If there is a better record than Feeling Mortal, I don’t know what it is. I’m not sure my heart could take it. If Kristofferson’s latest doesn’t define ‘genius’, then the word has lost all meaning. “It’s got to have feeling to mean anything”, he sings in ‘Bread For The Body’. If that’s true (and it is), then Feeling Mortal means everything.
You would think a record of songs about mortality would be a downer. But you’d be wrong. I came away from Feeling Mortal…well, feeling better about getting older. Like I’m not the only one. Like we have the same friends and common enemies. The aches and pains let up for a few minutes. All the frailty, laughter, and mistakes? I am not alone.
It goes without saying that Kristofferson, despite his monumental achievements, is mortal. These songs, however, are not.
Feeling Mortal is stunning.
And we are not alone.
Michael Franklin is the Media & Reserves Specialist at Western Kentucky University’s Visual & Performing Arts Library (VPAL). Michael is also a professional musician and sound engineer. He is currently recording his 6th CD with his best friends Screenlast 6.0 and Audacity Sourceforge. He thinks Iggy Pop is the greatest singer in the history of music. If you disagree, you’re wrong. You better ask somebody.
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