Release Date: Apr 28, 2017
Record label: Legacy
In a youth-obsessed world, God's Problem Child flies in convention's face. On the languishing title track, penned by Jamey Johnson and swamp rocker Tony Joe White, Willie Nelson enlists the song's co-writers and Leon Russell to consider living on one's own time and terms. Inhabiting the song as wizened elders who've stripped off false standards to find peace and redemption, they sound ragged and resolved as an acoustic blues guitar wrestles the melody on the bridge and Mickey Raphael's harmonica rises like so much heat.
BY JOHN B. MOORE Even at 84, Willie Nelson shows no signs of slowing down, but it's clear he's cognizant that everyone else is likely wondering just how much longer he has. The long since grayed, Red Headed Stranger makes a point of saying he's not through yet throughout God's Problem Child, his 70th or so album (yes, 70-plus records). "You had your run/It’s been a good one/Seems like the world is passing you by… Still got a lot of life and a song to sing," Nelson says on "Old Timer," one of the record's early tracks.
When mid-March press reports of Nelson's failing health had legions of fans fearing the worst, the man himself responded in typical Willie fashion by rising from his sickbed to honour a longstanding booking in Houston. Included in the set that night was a new song, one of the key tracks on this glorious album: "I woke up still not dead again today/ Though the internet said I had passed away". Like the bulk of the record, Still Not Dead is co-authored by Nelson and songwriter Buddy Cannon, in sharp-witted form throughout, never more so than on the post- Trump autopsy Delete And Fast Forward ("the elections are over, and nobody won").
At this point in his unprecedented, legendary career, Willie Nelson has safely earned his place in the annals of country music history and could just as easily rest on his laurels, taking the time to enjoy his twilight years as a virtual god amongst men. But doing what is expected of him has never been Nelson's forte. From his early years hocking songs to the likes of Patsy Cline through to his co-founding of the so-called Outlaw Country scene to the braided icon and marijuana advocate, Nelson has never been one to follow any predetermined path or play to expectations.
To say Willie Nelson is old-fashioned is an understatement. As country music and the country it represents has shifted and evolved, Willie's love songs and laid-back workingman's laments have fallen in and out of fashion. But even now, at age 83, Nelson is operating precisely how he did back in the ’60s. He's constantly on the road and releasing multiple albums a year, alternately trying out different styles and returning to his roots.
Mortality hangs over God's Problem Child, Willie Nelson's first solo album of original songs since 2014's Band of Brothers. Since that record, Willie lost several friends and he's also been the subject of several death hoaxes, a subject he tackles with a grin on "Still Not Dead," one of seven originals Nelson co-wrote with his longtime producer, Buddy Cannon. "Still Not Dead" provides a gateway to the rest of God's Problem Child, where Willie looks at the world with a blend of bemusement and melancholy suiting a road warrior who is still going strong in his eighties.
"I woke up still not dead again today," Willie Nelson sings on his new album, "the internet said I had passed away." Addressing recent rumors of declining health, Nelson plays the idea for laughs, but it's no joke. On his new album, the 83-year-old singer probes his own mortality and wrestles with death head-on for the first time on record. The main pitfall for an artist as prolific as Nelson is maintaining a sense of coherent urgency with each release.
In the face of their own imminent mortality, our greatest singer-songwriters have pivoted towards that darkness to deliver some of their most profound lines. "I'm leaving the table/I'm out of the game/I don't know the people/In your picture frame," Leonard Cohen sang on last year's swansong You Want It Darker. David Bowie portended: "Something happened on the day he died/Spirit rose a meter then stepped aside" on his final album, released two days before his own passing.
Willie Nelson is one of the greatest singer-songwriters ever, and a living legend for country and rock music. He has transformed and transcended genre while capturing hearts around the world. His latest, God's Problem Child, is a fine album, which is plenty at this stage in any artist's life. The saccharine sentiment in "Old Timer" and "True Love" would be nearly unbearable from a younger or less accomplished artist, but from Nelson, it feels right.
Incredibly, for a future outlaw whose first rodeo occurred in 1962 with song pitch ...And Then I Wrote ("Hello Walls," "Night Life," "Crazy"), the closest Willie Nelson ever came to a fallow period over the course of between five and six dozen studio LPs is the Eighties. Bad decade for everyone save for dictators and hairstylists. While modern Austin's founding father rode a strong first decade to this new millennium, he's setting a pace in the second for a late-career golden age.