For the better part of the history of recorded music, from “Crazy” to “Whiter Shade of Pale” to basically any number of the hundreds of songs in his songbook, Willie Nelson has been poetically trying to capture slivers of what it means to be a human. So it shouldn’t really be surprising that in his old age--he turns 85 this month--and with last year’s God’s Problem Child, and this year’s splendid Last Man Standing, he’s writing poignant, beautiful songs of what it’s like to watch your peers die, and when everyday you wake up is a gift. On paper, Last Man Standing--with its title track about how Willie is the last original country star left, and while he never thought that would happen, it’s better than being the alternative--might sound unbearably bleak. But in practice, it’s one of the most life-affirming, fun albums of 2018, a celebration of minor victories as we all hurtle around the sun an undetermined amount of times.
Produced and co-written with Buddy Cannon--who helmed the boards and co-wrote a large part of God’s Problem Child--Last Man Standing comes after another year of health scares for Nelson. He got a flu he couldn’t shake last summer that forced him to cancel a tour, and its lingering effects led to more canceled dates this year, which in turn led to a lot of the same kind of reports that inspired “Still Not Dead.” Any illness didn’t affect his ability to finish his 62nd-ish solo album (depending on what you count), another album full of rock-solid country tunes, produced airily by Cannon’s steady hand.
The title track opening the album has some of Nelson’s most poignant recent lyrics: “It’s gettin’ hard to watch my pals check out / it cuts like a wore-out knife / one thing I learned about running the road / is that forever don’t apply to life,” he sings here, bending his voice in and out of the line. But before you can get too bummed out by the reality of that song, he hits with “Bad Breath,” a song about how “bad breath is better than no breath at all.” When he brings you down with the somber “Something You Get Through,” he hits you with “Heaven is Closed,” a song about how heaven is closed, and hell is over-crowded, so Willie is deciding to stay alive. The album hits its emotional peak with “I’ll Try To Do Better Next Time,” a song about how life ultimately amounts to how you try to be better after each fuck-up.
Last Man Standing is yet another example of Willie Nelson being one of our national treasures, a songwriter explaining life back to us. Each new album from him is a gift, a guide, and a talisman. I hope he gets to make another 62.