Whether he’s composing country classics like “Crazy”, risking his career by recording a pop album like 1978’s Stardust, or releasing an album with Wynton Marsalis, Willie Nelson gladly jumps across genres to find a song he likes. He’ll collaborate with anyone willing to join him, from Waylon Jennings to Sinead O’Connor to Julio Iglesias. With his latest release, Heroes, Nelson adds Snoop Dogg to the growing list of genre-bending crossover collaborations, and brings along two of his sons for the ride. From three pre-1950s country tunes to covers of Pearl Jam and Coldplay, Nelson once again zips all over the map.
On similar albums, such as 1993’s Across the Borderline, Nelson played master curator, taking songs by Paul Simon, Lyle Lovett, and Peter Gabriel and melding them into a cohesive story of perseverance and an appreciation for his life. On Heroes, Nelson again gathers his multifaceted tastes and crams them into one 14-song album. On the way, he produces some new gems, but features too many ideas and guests, giving the album a lack of focus.
Buried underneath the whirlwind of collaborations and covers is the fact that Nelson can still write clever, enduring songs. He wrote or co-wrote three songs on Heroes, and these are the effort’s best tracks: “Hero”, a twang-infused waltz tribute to singer/songwriter Billy Joe Shaver; the country gospel tune “Come Back to Jesus”; and “Roll Me Up”, a jaunty ode to toking. On the last of these, Nelson joins Kris Kristofferson, Jamey Johnson, and a singing Snoop Dogg in what should become a sing-along favorite at live shows, with an oft repeated chorus of, “Roll me up and smoke me when I die.”
Throughout his collaborative history, Nelson hasn’t re-invented himself as much as he has invited others into his musical world to create something new. As a result, Snoop doesn’t drop rhymes as he often does in cameo appearances, but instead blends in, sounding like he’s been singing country jams for years.
Nelson also finds success with another group effort, “Come on Back Jesus”, a song co-written by his son Micah and producer Buddy Cannon. With some call-and-response vocals, Nelson invites Jesus to return and to “pick up John Wayne on the way,” so that the Lord and the Duke can clean house and fix a broken world.
While no one should tell Nelson not to collaborate (after all, he does it as well as anyone), he just invited too many people to the party this time. Merle Haggard and Nelson’s son Lukas join Willie in a new rendition of the Wayne Carter-penned song “A Horse Called Music”, the title track of Nelson’s 1989 album. The end result, however, can’t trump the original. Though he’s invited his sons along, the result doesn’t come across as shameless nepotism, because Lukas Nelson has talent, as evidenced in his original composition, “Every Time He Drinks He Thinks of Her”. But with appearances on over half of the album’s songs, we don’t get an introduction to Lukas; we get an oversaturation of him.
One of the issues with the Nelson and sons collaborations is that there isn’t enough contrast between their voices. Lukas shares his father’s nasal-based tenor, but adds more rasp–think the vocal lovechild of Willie Nelson and Deer Tick’s John McCauley. When both Nelsons sing at full throttle, the difference is clearer, but on quieter songs, the two blend too closely together.
Lukas also shows up in awkward places, such as a cover of the Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan song “Come on Up to the House”. The elder Nelson has a nice chemistry with guest Sheryl Crow, but Lukas mills around as a third wheel, creating a somewhat crowded house and resulting in something frail.
Lukas and his dad’s duet on Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe” is adequate, but lacks the tenderness of Willie’s solo version of Coldplay’s “The Scientist”, the track that ends the album. Originally recorded to serve as the soundtrack to an animated film that promoted the Chipotle restaurant chain’s sustainable farming practices, “The Scientist” allows Nelson to showcase himself on an album where he’s overshadowed by the visitors around him. When the almost-octogenarian Nelson sings, “Nobody said it was easy/No one ever said it would be this hard/Oh, take me back to the start,” he reaches a moment of poignancy not found elsewhere on the album.
This last track reminds listeners that at 79 years old, Nelson still outshines most performers working today, and he should rely on himself as much–if not more–than he relies on others. While Heroes adds some essential songs to his canon and certainly doesn’t diminish his legacy, it ultimately lacks enough of what makes Willie Nelson albums so enjoyable: Willie Nelson himself.
Essential Tracks: “Roll Me Up”, “Hero”, “Come on Back Jesus”, and “Hero”