That we are all having to work for longer is an accepted fact but few will ever equal Willie Nelson’s prodigious effort and output. To celebrate his recent 85th birthday he released his 67th studio album, Last Man Standing. This collection of 11 new songs comes out a year after its predecessor, God’s Problem Child. Nelson still performs live and as this new album testifies he remains as sharp as ever and in good voice. That’s some achievement.
As with last year’s release, in Last Man Standing Nelson spends a lot of time musing on his own mortality, particularly having lost so many old friends. However, unlike God’s Problem Child, he does it this time with perhaps less morbid introspection and a more cheerful, forward looking approach. Yet all he says is in the context of inevitability, so while he may stick a finger up to the Grim Reaper, Willie knows his time will come and it may not be that far off.
In a way the whole record can be summed up by the first two lines of its opener, the title track, “I don’t want to be the last man standing/well, wait a minute, maybe I do”. This wry line also reflects the humour that runs throughout so much of the record while the next two show Nelson’s philosophical side, “if you don’t mind, I’ll start a new life after thinking it through”. Nelson is an expert at many things but reincarnation could be a step too far. Again, the song reminds us why he reflects thus, “it’s getting harder to watch my pals check out, it cuts like a worn out knife”. Perfectly put, as the song’s jaunty pace shows that whatever happens, Nelson isn’t morbid.
That’s not to say Nelson doesn’t think about the effects of old age. Though still at a cheerful clip, ‘Don’t Tell Noah’ is about dementia, “don’t tell me I’ve lost my mind, I’ve been crazy all the time”. The way Nelson sings this around the fast tempo suggests he’s some way off being a sufferer himself.
Another affliction that receives attention is halitosis, (“is a word I could never spell”). Again, Nelson’s humour comes first but it masks a serious point in the song’s title, ‘Bad Breath’ “is better than no breath at all’. ‘Me And You’ continues the theme of ageing, again at a fast tempo.
If Nelson was using the music to keep a youthful beat, at last it slows to a more fitting pace in the mournful, ‘Something you Get Through’. A pedal steel and harmonica accompany Nelson’s reflections on life that “goes on and on” yet the feeling that he is contemplating his own transience is hard to escape.
Then it’s back to a two step about going out on a Friday night after work, ‘Ready to Roar’. This is definitely not the life of the average octogenarian. Not only that but the tales of the booze and doing it again more than suggests Nelson could still drink most people decades younger than him under the table.
As the name implies, ‘Heaven is Closed’, cocks a further snook at what happens next. “Heaven is closed and hell is overcrowded, so I think I’ll stay where I am” sings Nelson to a waltzing country score complete with more pedal steel and fiddle.
Staying in this life is very much at the heart of ‘She Made My Day’, a song that could have featured on any of Nelson’s records. It barrels along, feeling like he’s the one saying don’t go just yet.
Reincarnation returns with ‘I’ll Try To Do Better Next Time’. Nelson’s candour at a life well lived is humbling as he considers how he could do better if given another chance. “The good book says love everybody and the lord knows I really have tried/ but I’ll throw a kiss to the ones I have missed, and I’ll try to do better next time”.
‘Very Far to Crawl’ closes the record. Though a love song that Nelson could have sung over many decades, its moody slide and harmonica help to put those words into a deeper context again about Nelson’s own life. I hope that’s just me trying to be too clever.
As we have mourned the loss of so many great musicians over recent years, Last Man Standing tells how that loss must feel when they are contemporaries. In these songs Nelson deals with his own mortality often with a light touch, his humour always perfectly pitched, to give the impression he can go on and on. There is defiance and also acceptance and all done with such dignity. Please be upstanding for Mr Willie Nelson, the last man standing.