Snoop Dogg, Sheryl Crow and Merle Haggard all show up on Willie's mostly satisfying new album, but it's really a torch-passing exercise
Everyone remembers the most galvanizing moment of this year’s Grammys — when the telecast cut to commercial and, over a Chipotle ad, we heard a studio recording of Willie Nelson singing Coldplay’s “The Scientist.”
You can relive that very special Grammy moment (minus the environmentally themed animation and Chipotle logo) at the climax of Nelson’s new album, “Heroes,” a mostly satisfying grab-bag of celebrity duets, nepotism, odes to wacky weed and interpretations of everyone from Bob Wills to Pearl Jam.
The most attention-getting new number, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” was purportedly slated to be the title track before someone thought better of outrightly alienating Willie’s seven remaining socially conservative fans.
It marks the first and, we can confidently say, last time Snoop Dogg and Kris Kristofferson will ever join in song as duet partners. Both guests are just strained enough in their singing that it kind of works.
Speaking of duets, that’s about the only through-line on this kitchen-sink-styled collection. Sheryl Crow, Jamey Johnson, Merle Haggard, Ray Price and Billy Joe Shaver also make vocal appearances, although rarely for longer than a few bars or a single verse. The bulk of “Heroes” consists of the 79-year-old legend sharing lead vocals with his 22-year-old son, Lukas Nelson, a gamble that’s hard to get used to if you’re thinking you signed up for a Willie Nelson solo album.
Once you do become accustomed to the idea of “Heroes” as a (mostly) father/son album, that has its value, since Lukas is a near-sound-alike for his dad, and it’s weirdly fascinating to hear someone more than five decades younger sing with that same reedy vibrato, albeit usually at a higher pitch.
When they blend voices on the chorus of Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe,” it’s spooky — and not just because the song itself is concerned with mortality in a way that surely has special meaning to harmonizing members of successive generations.
Lukas Nelson is a recording artist in his own right, but on his own he’s leading a rock 'n' roll band, so it’s fun to finally hear him croon amid his father’s acoustically based instrumental beds — and hear him writing in that style, as well, since three cuts come from Lukas’ own pen, and they’re at least as good as the four tracks Willie wrote or co-wrote for the project.
But Nelson the paterfamilias does stretch our patience for all-in-the-family stuff to the breaking point. Lukas adds his vocals to nine of the 14 tracks, to where his guest appearances seem both arbitrary and predictable. He even duets with Dad on the old country standard “This Cold War With You,” which really calls out for a female duet partner. (Elder statesman Ray Price sings a few lines on the track, and you’re wishing he sang Lukas’ part instead … until you remember that Nelson and Price have already cut the track as a duet twice, in 1980 and again in 2003.)
Fans can be annoyed that Nelson keeps roping his son into the proceedings … or touched that he clearly wants to get the torch-passing under way. If you can accommodate the latter position, you’ll be able to enjoy “Heroes” as Willie’s most consistent collection in quite a few years (which is actually saying something, given his never-ending output).
It doesn’t take a “Scientist” to realize that anybody who can interpret the fast-stepping Western swing of “Home in San Antone” and a Chris Martin emo ballad and make ‘em sound like they belong on the same album still merits his national-treasure status.