Willie Nelson - Heroes
Heroes is a homecoming of sorts for legendary Country artist Willie Nelson. Nelson spent his most popular years recording for Sony Music labels and this album kicks off a myriad of releases including both new and archival material, compiled by Nelson himself.
Heroes is a collection of classic Country tunes, some old Nelson favorites revisited, new material penned by Nelson and his sons Lukas and Micah, and covers penned by artists as diverse as Pearl Jam, Tom Waits, and Coldplay. It also features specials guests you’d expect to see such as Merle Haggard and Nelson’s sons as well as ones you might not expect, such as Snoop Dogg, Jamey Johnson, and Sheryl Crow.
Not surprisingly, the sound here is deep Country with notable tinges of Jazz and Singer/Songwriter (and the occasional Gospel soul). Nelson sound great here, he’s golden voice doesn’t sound any different than it did when he was in his prime. Although the album, as a whole, is more upbeat than his last few offerings; if you are expecting anything other than pure Willie Nelson then you will be sorely disappointed.
As someone with a healthy respect for Country music but also someone who’s not entirely in love with it, it’s hard to pick highlights. I naturally gravitate towards the songs that lean (albeit slightly) away from the twang of the genre. The Gospel-tinged duet with Sheryl Crow and Lukas Nelson (“Come On Up To The House”) is a nice break from Nelson’s signature style (as you’d expect from a Tom Waits song, right?) and it has a certain “longing” sound to it that makes one wonder if this is more than just a song. A cover of Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe” (from Backspacer) is wonderful as well. Eddie Vedder has a very distinct sound vocally and Nelson is a million miles from that sound but the core acoustic piece makes it recognizable while Nelson’s life-worn voice takes the song to a whole other place in time. Lukas Nelson’s “No Place To Fly” is thoroughly enjoyable as well – taking a post-Grunge sort of Singer/Songwriter sound and seamlessly meshing it with the traditions of Country music.
The undeniable highlight here though, and what makes this album worth the cost for any music fan, is the final track. On it, Nelson covers Coldplay’s “The Scientist” (from A Rush of Blood to the Head) with a conviction not unlike when the late Johnny Cash brought new life to Nine Inch Nails “Hurt.” The song was originally commissioned by Chipotle Mexican Grill and used as the soundtrack to their new ad campaign endorsing locally grown and organic foods. A portion of the proceeds go to the Chiptle Cultivate Foundation, which brings to mind all kinds of things, including Nelson’s historic connection to Farm Aid. What matters most is the song though and Nelson knocks it out of the park here. This is likely one of his most defining moments as an artist. He takes the Coldplay original and de-clouds it, stripping it down to a heartfelt lyrical piece that makes you feel like you can change the world.
While this review has gotten much longer than I intended, there are many facets to this album to explore, making it a perfect companion for those who like revamped material and the feel of many songwriters with different angles. For me this is one of the big downfalls of Heroes though. This feels like a collection of unrelated songs and not like an album. Also, the presence of Snoop Dogg, Kris Kristofferson, and Jamey Johnson on Nelson’s newly penned “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” while entirely appropriate, just goes to show how badly old Willie needs outside songwriters these days. As always though, it’s the golden voice that pushes you over the edge and makes even the bad seem tolerable.
Overall, die hard fans will be ecstatic over this and newcomers and the half-hearted will find at least four or five songs to like, making it better than most of the crap out there today!
Reviewed by Mark Fisher