People always seem surprised when they find out I like Kris Kristofferson’s music. Maybe it’s the fact I don’t just like the songs he writes, but also like the way he sings them. Sure his voice sounds like its being pulled through a whisky-soaked rasp that’s been allowed to sit in a smoke-filled room for a couple of days. There’s also the fact the words he sings always sound like they had to fight their way out of his chest in order to be heard. It’s like he’s only grudgingly willing to share these secrets of his heart and soul with us.
However, that’s what makes his songs so powerful. There’s nothing casual about either the emotions behind his songs or the manner in which he delivers them. As befitting a Rhodes Scholar (a scholarship awarded to North American university students who mix excellence in academics and athletics that allows them to attend Oxford University in England) there is thought behind everything he does. Not once have I ever heard him cross the line from genuine emotion to cheap sentimentality in order to manipulate a reaction from his listeners. The direct result of this can only be careful consideration of both his lyrics and the music accompanying them. While you can check out nearly any album he’s ever released, his most recent, Feeling Mortal, the first on his own label KK Records, will give you all the proof you need.
There have been times in the past when Kristofferson’s music has fallen victim to the machinations of some overzealous Hollywood or Nashville producer. While they have never quite succeeded in submerging his rough honesty beneath their saccharine coatings of strings and massed backing singers, they came close. Thankfully he started working with producer Don Was 17 years ago and the results of that arrangement have been some of Kristofferson’s cleanest and most honest work since the early days of “Me and Bobby McGee”, “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and “The Pilgrim”.
On Feeling Mortal Kristofferson has assembled a collection of 10 songs reflecting the theme suggested by the title. Yet this isn’t some attempt at atonement or a plea for forgiveness on the part of a repenting reprobate. It’s just an honest self examination of who he is, where he’s been and what he sees when he looks in the mirror. Take the title song’s last verse, “Soon or later I’ll be leaving/I’m a winner either way/For the laughter and the loving/That I’m living with today”. The past might hold sorrows and regrets for mistakes he made, but he’s not dwelling on them. Who knows what the future holds, but the present is still something to be celebrated and be grateful for.
Of course there are songs that look to the past. Some, like “Castaway” reflect moments when he realized he was flirting with disaster by sailing close to the edge: “‘Cause like a ship without a rudder/I’m just drifting with the tide/And 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”. Others are almost defiant in their lack of apology for who and what he’s been. The title of “You Don’t Tell Me What to Do” should be a giveaway, but for all those a bit slow on the uptake Kristofferson spells it out for them with the lyrics: “So I sing my own songs/And I drink when I’m thirsty/And I will go on/Making music, and whisky/And love for as long/As the spirit inside me/Says you don’t tell me what to do”.
Even those songs which in the hands of others might descend into what I call hangover Christianity – repentance after a night’s debauchery – are saved from a fate worse than death by both the sparse production values and Kristofferson’s vocal delivery. Never what you’d be tempted to call flowery, his voice sounds even more lived in and care worn then ever. However, any deficiencies in his vocals are more than made up for his capacity to deliver each word of every song as if it were being wrung directly from his soul. No matter how hard you try you’ll never be able to make him sound pretty or smooth out his rough edges. All of which pretty much guarantees a purity and honesty to his music that others can only dream of obtaining.
Musicians like Mark Goldenberg on guitar, Greg Leisz on pedal steel, Matt Rollins on keyboards, Sara Watkins on vocals and violin, Sean Hurley on bass and Aaron Sterling on drums, play in support of Kristofferson and his voice. They are not so much a backing band as the framework or the backdrop for his songs. Playing underneath, around and beside, but never over the top of his voice, they provide accents which fill the songs out without taking away any of the rough hewn honesty that gives them their power. You have to listen carefully in order to even hear Watkins’ harmonies on some songs. However, this is a great change from background singers overwhelming a lead vocalist.
I can’t talk about this album without mentioning the final song on the disc, “Ramblin’ Jack”, a tribute to the great country folk singer Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. In some ways though the song is also autobiographical, with lines like “And if he knew how good he’d done/Every song he sung/I believe he’d truly be surprised” describing Kristofferson’s own life and career just as much as it does Elliott’s. However, the song also reaches way back to an earlier tune Kristofferson penned, “The Pilgrim”, which in its introduction he dedicated to a variety of people, Elliott included.
That song was filled with the spirit of young men living the life of rebellious poets taking chances and flaunting conventional wisdom. Now, many years later, those who still survive have grown older and wiser and have careers to look back upon. Yet this isn’t a maudlin or sentimental wondering where the years have gone song. Nor is it a song filled with regrets or repentance. It’s just a simple statement of fact. This is the life we led and what we did.
In many ways “Ramblin’ Jack” sums up the theme of the entire album. Kristofferson isn’t asking anyone for their forgiveness or understanding, he’s just looking in the mirror and telling us what he sees. This might trigger some memories of things from the past and he might feel regret for the way he treated some people. However he’s honest enough to realize if given the chance to do it over, he’d probably do everything pretty much the same.
Like some aged whiskies, Kristofferson is an acquired taste. His voice isn’t what you’d call soothing or mellow and he doesn’t try to please anybody but himself with his songs. Once you get past the initial bite, his music will leave you with a warmth that fills you from the inside out. Feeling Mortal is a perfect example of the magic he works into his music.