Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Considering that the title is Feeling Mortal, the subject matter of Kris Kristofferson’s new album shouldn’t be much of a surprise to listeners. This is a collection of songs about the unforgiving nature of old age, the regrets that accumulate over the passing years, and the hard-earned wisdom that comes too late in life to make much of a difference.
Nor is there much surprise in the way that Feeling Mortal is rendered. If you know Kristofferson’s recent work, you know you’re going to get a bunch of leisurely-paced country-folk ballads with a couple feistier numbers thrown in for balance. Producer Don Was wisely keeps things spare and puts the onus on the singer’s grizzled vocals to do the heavy lifting.
What might be surprising is that, in spite of the sober lyrical themes and the laid-back music, this all sounds so vibrant. Kristofferson’s songwriting skills only seem to be sharpening with time, and he’s not about to go gentle into any good night any time soon.
The title track’s opening line sets the contemplative tone: “Wide awake and feeling mortal.” Kristofferson veers in the song from gratefulness at having come this far and incredulousness at feeling no surer of his place in the world: “God Almighty here I am/Am I where I’m supposed to be?” On the harrowing “Castaway,” an encounter with a boat drifting aimlessly at sea acts as a metaphor for the narrator’s rudderless life: “I won’t even make a ripple when I sink.”
Kristofferson’s singing is pretty much devoid of range at this point, but, like contemporaries Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, his interpretive skills seem to be moving in inverse proportion to the smoothness of his voice. Nowhere is this more deeply realized than on the songs lamenting lost loves, songs which also do a tremendous job of showing off his plainspoken yet powerful lyrics.
“My Heart Was The Last One To Know,” an older song co-written with Shel Silverstein, traces a relationship from its peak to its demise by highlighting how self-deception can only get you so far. “Stairway To The Bottom” initially seems to be admonishing those who would be unfaithful to their lovers, only to reveal that the perpetrator is the guy in the mirror.
Lest anyone think that the album is all painful ruminations on mistakes made over the course of a long life, Kristofferson also takes the time to celebrate those who got through on their own terms. There’s a sweet tribute to “Mama Stewart,” and “Ramblin’ Jack” is a raucous eulogy to Kristofferson’s hard-living contemporary Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. About Elliott he sings, “And he’s known to lay his weary head/In some funky unfamiliar beds/But he was only looking for a home.”
Lines like those, full of wit and profundity, spill out of practically every song. Feeling Mortal may want to imply that the end is near, but the evidence on the record contradicts that. As a matter of fact, Kris Kristofferson seems to be just getting warmed up.