Album: Willie Nelson, "Heroes" (Sony Legacy)
Throughout a long and extremely weird career (really one of the greatest shaggy dog stories the popular music industry has ever produced, and there's very little even comes close in terms of audaciousness times longevity divided by quality), Willie Hugh Nelson has maintained a certain level of familiarity with his audience merely by doing the things nobody expects a country star should do. Rolling with rappers, rapping about marijuana, speaking out against authority figures -- he's essentially an older Kid Rock, with gravitas, and the mirror image of the polished citybilly you're most likely to see stalking the stage of the Grand Ole Opry these days.
That's what makes "Heroes" so maddening. It's not for lack of taking risks -- no album that cameos a tuneless Snoop Dogg crooning about being rolled up and smoked upon death can be considered truly "conservative" -- but that the unpredictability has become predictable at this point for Willie Nelson. You would basically expect Willie to sing about pot, and lurking behind that expectation would be the suspicion that some unruly guest stars might be along for that ride, and you'd be right. But you're not learning anything you didn't know about Willie Nelson.
It can't be conservative, maybe, but it undeniably skews right-moderate, and slightly uninspired. The gentle opener, "A Horse Called Music," sports a heroic assist from old compatriot Merle Haggard, but it flows like melted butter, pooling at the opening to the album and inhibiting further access to the vaults within. An unusual choice for an album's first cut, it would have served fine as riding-into-the-sunset music, an instance, perhaps, where predictability would have paid off better dividends than unorthodoxy. The aforementioned "Smoke Me Up" scoots across the floor with assists from Snoop, Kris Kristofferson and nu-country crooner Jamey Johnson -- it's clever, and catchy, but it's nowhere Willie hasn't taken listeners before, and often.
The set works better when Nelson begins working son Lukas into the mix on tunes like the memory-soaked "No Place to Fly" (and how weird must it be to be Willie Nelson's son, singing duet on a song about his pop smoking too much weed and ignoring his husbandly duties?) Lukas has a high-reedy voice more reminiscent of Hank Williams Sr. than his father, but the familial genetics have gifted the younger Nelson phrasing and vocal control eerily similar to the elder, and a little age and the grit of years will only add to the sense we're watching Willie Mark II.
It's possible, however, that Nelson is too much of an equal opportunist when it comes to his guest stars. Only one tune -- a cover of Buddy Cannon's "That's All There is to This Song" -- features Nelson going solo, and some of the cameos simply don't work that well, notably a "look who just walked into the studio, folks" misfire by Sheryl Crow on Tom Waits' "Come On Up to the House," originally a boozy piano dirge probably never meant for the sort of jovial camaraderie a loveable cad like Nelson brings to the table.
Elsewhere he covers Pearl Jam's "Just Breathe" in a style equal parts Springsteen and Cash, as if he couldn't decide which outsized icon would best fill Eddie Vedder's modestly sized Chuck Taylors.
But it's oddly enough a Coldplay cover that emerges as the most brilliant and complete thing on "Heroes." Admittedly one of Chris Martin's more affecting works -- regardless how you actually feel about the oft-maligned British anthem-rockers -- Nelson grabs the meaty cut of "The Scientist" by its flank and claims possession through some odd interpretation of old English naval law. In the same way that Johnny Cash took "Hurt" from Trent Reznor, lock stock and barrel, Willie Nelson now owns a part of "The Scientist" that Martin will never entirely recover. It's this sort of unpredictable predictability that's missing through most of the album, and if it doesn't quite make up for lost opportunities elsewhere, it maybe shines a light down a hallway Nelson would do well to explore in the future, and let's face it, Willie's not getting any younger, so he might want to think about asking Rick Rubin to come over with a four-track recorder sooner instead of later.