Wide awake and feeling mortal/ At this moment in the dream/ That old man there in the mirror/ And my shaky self-esteem.
So opens Feeling Mortal, the 28th record from one of America's greatest songwriters, Kris Kristofferson. In other, less-skilled hands it would ring false, but like so much of his work -- from the bare honesty of "Sunday Morning Coming Down" to the sublime "Why Me Lord?" -- Kristofferson offers up his soul in plain, understated brilliance. He writes songs for the everyman, in a way that few have achieved. No metaphor, no allusions, just simple truth, honestly told. Feeling Mortal seems an album of reflection, a summing up for the 76 year old, and on songs such as "Bread for the Body (And Song for the Soul)" -- Because life is a song for the dying to sing -- and the bittersweet "My Heart Was the Last One to Know" (written with Shel Silverstein), he judges himself and his life with gentle wisdom and a wise eye, never more judgmental of others than he is of himself.
This is the third album Kristofferson has made with producer Don Was (joining 2006's This Old Road and Closer to the Bone from 2009), and like Johnny Cash's swan song recordings with Rick Rubin, the combination of Kristofferson's haggard vocals and simple musical arrangements with Was's understated backing allows the songs and the singer to be enjoyed in their fullest. Greg Leisz provides pedal steel and guitars, and former Nickel Creek founder Sara Watkins is wonderful on violin and vocals, but it's Kris's songs that stand out. From a heartfelt tribute to his long-time friend "Ramblin' Jack" (Elliot) to a defiant "You Don't Tell Me What to Do," his songwriting prowess has rarely been better or more compellingly used.
"Castaway" sees Kristofferson looking back at his life "like a ship without a rudder" who is "drawing closer to the brink" and ends with the only dishonest lyric on the record: "Just a speck upon the waters/ of an ocean deep and wide/ I won't even make a ripple when I sink." Because as anyone who has fallen in love with the art and humanity of Kris Kristofferson can tell you, he'll make far more than just a ripple when he goes. Feeling Mortal is just the latest example of that.