Release Date: May 15, 2012
Record label: Legacy
Genre(s): Country, Contemporary Country, Progressive Country, Country-Pop, Traditional Country
On his millionth album, give or take, Willie Nelson is his usual self: loping through a set of well-chosen originals and unlikely covers (Coldplay's "The Scientist"!?) with casual virtuosity. This time, Nelson has packed his recording studio with friends and family, including his son Lukas, who sings on nine songs. The results are mixed: In "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die," featuring guest vocals by Kris Kristofferson, Jamey Johnson and, yep, Snoop Dogg, the stoner's bonhomie is audible.
It’s a good thing Nelson has so many heroes, because it took a dozen of them to make this set of originals, covers, and collaborations with his sons, Micah and Lukas. He pays tribute to Coldplay with a wrenching solo version of ”The Scientist” and honors country outlaw Billy Joe Shaver with the sad, lovely ”Hero.” (Shaver sings backup, which only makes it more moving.) Elsewhere, Nelson lights up with Snoop Dogg, telling fans to sprinkle their ashes in a joint when they die (”Roll Me Up”). The music on Heroes is less diverse than Nelson’s tastes suggest — it’s all country lite — but there’s a real warmth in his work with his kids.
In some circles the ultimate compliment you can pay any singer is that you would listen to him or her sing the phone book. Well, given that Willie Nelson has, according to his label, a catalog of more than 200 albums that have sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 million copies, it seems quite possible that at one time or another Nelson has indeed sung the phone book, and that someone somewhere paid for the privilege of listening. Over the last six decades, Nelson has sung with everyone from Julio Iglesias to, well, everyone else.
For a songwriter whose biggest hit came in the shape of a cover version – Pasty Cline’s 50-year-old take on ‘Crazy’ – it seems only right that country music grandmaster Willie Nelson is allowed to indulge in a few musical reimaginings of his own. He excellently lends Coldplay’s ‘The Scientist’ a terse fragility, but less successful is a sanitised, Sheryl Crow-featuring version of Tom Waits’ ‘Come On Up To The House’. More diverting is his own track, ‘Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die’ – starring fellow chronic fanboys Snoop Dogg and Kris Kristofferson.
Returning to the Columbia/Sony family after nearly two decades away, Willie Nelson once again tries to be everything to everybody on 2012's Heroes, an appealingly misshapen collection of classics, contemporaries, and originals. Heroes -- its title signifying no great concept -- is roughly divided into quarters, with part of the album devoted to the Western swing and Texas country he's always loved to sing, part consisting of new songs from Willie, part originals from his son Lukas, and part covers of newer, rock-oriented tunes from the likes of Tom Waits, Eddie Vedder, and Chris Martin. Each of these categories is a bit hit-or-miss, either succumbing to cutesy novelty (the dope-smoking anthem "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die," complete with country cadences from a non-rapping Snoop Dogg) or laziness, and there's a wee bit too much Lukas Nelson scattered throughout the record, with the son of the father singing on no less than nine of the album's 14 songs.
In his 79 years on earth, Willie Nelson has built up an unparalleled legacy in country music and a catalog so deep that only Frank Zappa’s gives it any competition in terms of sheer volume. Nelson’s 66th album, Heroes, follows a similar pattern to most of his recent releases, offering up a populist mix of original compositions, covers of cowboy classics and contemporary songs in equal measure. This frequently ends up frustrating; his attempt at Coldplay’s “The Scientist” is an awkward fit, and Tom Waits’ “Come On Up to the House” is stripped of much of the original’s soul, while Snoop Dogg’s goofy cameo in “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” though endearing, comes off as little more than novelty.
For all of Willie Nelson’s many talents, he’s never developed any semblance of an internal editor, and that’s made his catalogue maddeningly uneven. It’s that inconsistency and lack of focus that mars Heroes, which relies too heavily on misguided collaborations that don’t add anything of value to the album. Interestingly, though, the primary culprit behind the album’s messiness isn’t Nelson himself, but his son, Lukas, who performs on or co-wrote the majority of the songs.
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.
At 79, Willie Nelson rebounds from spotty recent additions to his catalog, including 2006's Songbird and Moment of Forever two years later. Featuring a roster that includes Sheryl Crow, Merle Haggard, and Snoop Dogg, Heroes draws 14 tracks from songwriters as varied as the late Jerry Livingston, Tom Waits, and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder. Snoop's inclusion on the sly, funny "Roll Me Up," which also boasts Jamey Johnson and Kris Kristofferson trading verses about an unorthodox cremation, isn't as gratuitous as it sounds.
Simple virtues and matchless instinct from a legend at 79. Ninian Dunnett 2012 Still playing, still with a twinkle in his eye, Willie Nelson at 79 sounds like a man with nothing to prove. And he’s all the better for that. Those who have missed out on a recording career that began in 1956 will get a pointer from Roll Me Up – a rollicking piece of mischief recorded with Snoop Dogg while Willie had a marijuana charge still pending in El Paso.
Willie Nelson has become a pop culture caricature, but he's always carried a torch for true country music. Before being completely taken over by shopping mall idiots in cowboy hats, conservative Christians and the occasional urban hipster, country was the genre of outcasts: lovesick wanderers and bums, drinkers and killers. Revisiting Nelson's best albums – Shotgun Willie (1973) and the Winning Hand (1982) duets collection – reveals an artist truly inspired by, and indebted to, the roots of the genre.