A few years ago false reports circulated online that Willie Nelson had died. The American icon reacted to these with his classic ease and wit and most surprisingly, it inspired him to craft his strongest album in years titled Still Not Dead. The follow-up, Last Man Standing is more of a mixed bag; however, its successful efforts manage to continue Nelson’s late-career writing/recording resurgence.
The 11 tracks were all co-written with Nelson’s longtime producer Buddy Cannon and run the scope of country sounds. Musically the pace is varied, the slower numbers hit the mark more often than the light rocking western joints which are starting to outpace the singer; while he has one of the quintessential American voices the 85-year-old Nelson is most certainly slowing down.
Opening with the title track, the infectious groove bubbles as Nelson sings his conflicted feelings about his current place in life, outliving many close friends and loved ones, sad to see them go, but selfishly glad he’s still around. “Bad Breath” shows off Nelson’s laid- back wit and charm as a songwriter who has always kept humor close by as Mickey Raphael blows gorgeous harmonica lines; Nelsons backing band is right in step with the singer.
Never one to skip a weepy ballad Nelson here focuses his talents on “Something You Get Through” which (while sappy) does the job but even more successful is the slow western waltzing standout “I’ll Try To Do Better Next Time”. “Me and You” is the in-it-until-the-end road song before “She Made My Day” brings back the humor of a relationship gone south. The best song on the album is the excellent “Heaven Is Closed” which finds Willie delivering his strongest vocal work in front of brilliant pedal steel guitar and lyrics that cause him to want to stick around a bit longer.
Less successful is the upbeat “Don’t Tell Noah” which gallops away from him even while encouraging rebels to keep rebelling before closer “Very Far To Crawl” oddly finishes the record on a swampy surreal sound that doesn’t click with the vocal style or heart-felt lyrics. “Ready To Roar” has a great theme for the rebellious old soul but Nelson’s heart (and more importantly his vocals) just aren’t truly ready to party. Also of note, the production from Cannon on this release seems lacquered on and a touch shiny; as if the players were shooting for a Grammy nod (which very well might happen).
That said how many American legends are turning eighty-five, writing new songs and making records half as good as this? Not many, that’s for damn sure. With his glorious voice, charm and light-hearted take on life, Nelsons Last Man Standing makes sure the good outweighs the bad.