Once upon a time, he was a military officer. He was a helicopter pilot and a Rhodes Scholar. Once upon a time, Kris Kristofferson played college football, and he also played the hard nosed character, “Whistler,” opposite Wesley Snipes in the horror/sci-fi trilogy Blade. Kris was – and still is – a Highwayman. But through it all, he’s been a poet, carving life into a song. Now 76 years old, the man who has lived so much is releasing his 28th studio album, a contemplative collection aptly titled, Feeling Mortal.
Due in stores January 29, Feeling Mortal is the final installment of a trilogy that opened with 2006’s This Old Road. Working again with producer Don Was (Martina McBride, Elizabeth Cook, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson), Kris bares all on the new 10-song set with an intimate sincerity as he reflects on both the good and the bad.
Using rich acoustic tones full of swaying pedal steel and gentle fiddle, the focus here is on the content of the songs. I’ve begun to soon descend like the sun into the sea, he sings on the album-opening title track that actually finishes a lot more optimistic than it starts. Yes, Kris occasionally strains to hold notes or hit the higher ones like he could in his prime, but the limitations only add to the emotional complexity. There are no studio tricks here, just an honest man singing his songs.
Kris stares straight at death during the album’s opening half. Life is a song for the dying to sing, he rolls through on “Bread for the Body,” a Celtic-inspired waltz with hints of electric guitar. On “Mama Stewart,” a slow funeral ballad, Kris admires the dearly departed with a profound respect for the way she looked at life; almost as if he one day hopes to be able to share her view. The themes are deep and the writing can be dark, but at the defiant, “You Don’t Tell Me What To Do,” things begin to shift away from the hereafter with the line, The highway is where I believe I belong / losing myself in the soul of a song.
The man who wrote gems like “Help Me Make It Through the Night” will forever have old school country lonesomeness coursing through his veins. “Stairway To the Bottom,” a story song about an affair with a friend’s wife, is full of stinging regret with lines like, No one’s watching but that mirror on the wall, striking with unflinching force. The classic “My Heart Was the Last One To Know” (co-written with Shel Silverstein and originally recorded by Connie Smith) is so helplessly in love it almost hurts, and on “Just Suppose,” where dobro accompanies with downtrodden empathy, things might have been different if only…
Kris shows a deep connection to the music on Feeling Mortal that comes through in varying ways. Over twin fiddles that move in and out of harmony on “Castaway,” he compares himself to a tattered vessel he once saw while flying over the Gulf of Mexico. On the sweet, “The One You Chose,” it’s a small laugh during the chorus that plays like an inside joke. And on “Ramblin’ Jack,” an outlaw tune for his friend Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, he could be singing about himself with the words, he ain’t afraid of where he’s been. Kris certainly isn’t afraid of where he’s been, and on Feeling Mortal, all of life’s “once upon a times” make for a thoughtful and moving collection.
Key Tracks – “Feeling Mortal,” “You Don’t Tell Me What To Do,” “Just Suppose,” “Ramblin’ Jack”