Jerry Lee Lewis
Mean Old Man
[Rating: 3.5 stars]
“If I look like a mean old man,” Jerry Lee Lewis sings on the title track of his latest album, Mean Old Man, “That’s what I am.” A glance at the album cover, showing a smiling Lewis surrounded by beautiful women clamoring for his attention, might cause a listener to disagree with that self-assessment. While The Killer may be up there in terms of years—his 75th birthday is coming up this month—he still sings with the same emotion and ferocity that first launched his career. Much like Johnny Cash’s later efforts, Lewis’s voice now is a little rougher and his range is a little more limited. Still, he isn’t going to let that stop him any more than he would let his age define him. Why, one verse later in the same song, which was co-written by Kris Kristofferson, Lewis forgets all about his years and simply asks the listener to see if he looks like a “good ol’ friend.”
For his collaborators, the answer to this is an easy one. The all-star cast, which features three members of The Rolling Stones — Keith, Mick and Ron — as well as Sheryl Crow, John Fogerty and Eric Clapton, joins Lewis as he covers songs written by his contemporaries and by those he’s influenced throughout the years. Standout tracks include a rollicking version of “You Are My Sunshine,” featuring Lewis trading off verses with Crow. Here, Lewis’ age serves him well; his strained voice adds the proper gravitas to the heartfelt lyrics of the second verse—“The other night dear as I was sleeping/I dreamed I held you in my arms/When I awoke dear I was mistaken/And it vanished all my charm.”
As with most feature-heavy albums, some of the duets fall flat. Kid Rock adds nothing to “Rockin’ My Life Away” other than the ability to strain over every note in a way that would make even Steve Perry blush. “Bad Moon Rising” with John Fogerty backfires mostly because Fogerty sounds the exact same as he did thirty years ago while Lewis sadly does not.
Still, there is some real magic to be had on Mean Old Man. The “Dead Flowers” duet with Mick Jagger features two elder rock statesmen holding court — Jagger’s nasal voice covering the high while Lewis holds down low-end with some gravel in his throat. The ultimate nostalgia trip on the album is Lewis’ version of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven,” which features a blistering blues solo by John Mayer and some inconsequential drumming by Ringo Starr. Despite his big-name counterparts, there’s no doubt who owns this particular performance. As the piano pounds, one thing becomes clear. If there was ever a motto for Lewis’s career — or at least, one he didn’t write himself — it’s this: “Roll over Beethoven/Dig these rhythm and blues.” So how about you respect your elders and heed Mr. Lewis’s advice? If you don’t, well, he’ll probably have to chase you off his property. No good lousy kids.