Willie Nelson may be in his 80th year, but he’s showing no signs of slowing down, having released about as many studio albums as years of his life. Heroes is one of those albums that has the potential to go very wrong, but pulls through often due to the sheer charisma of the man and that voice of his.
With his gentle vocals and still-unique phrasing, Willie could actually sing the phonebook and make it interesting. However, like so many legends when they reach that certain age, he has spent a lot of his time recently making albums with more special guests than your average hip-hop release. A lot of it is probably down to his generous and gregarious nature, but it doesn’t always work in his favour.
As Amadou & Mariam displayed earlier in the year, too many cooks tend to ruin the musical broth, and the only thing more disheartening for fans than an tracklisting full of ‘special guests’ is one that also has lots of mentions of a member of the singer’s family. Nepotism and self-indulgence come to mind.
But Willie has always been about the family (or, The Family), so it’s hardly a surprise to see him working with his son Lukas, who is in his own band. And while it’s a little disconcerting hearing the two Nelsons duetting with distinctly similar voices (Lukas just sings at a slightly different pitch, with his younger man’s vocal chords), it’s not in any way unpleasant and has no ill effects on Heroes.
Nor does the revolving door of guests, really. It helps that they’re pretty much regulars, like Kris Kristofferson, Ray Price, Merle Haggard, Snoop Dogg (!) and Sheryl Crow. Snoop and Kristofferson, along with Jamey Johnson, offer backing on what was meant to be the title track, Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die. It’s a shame he didn’t stick to that, rather than the bland title of Heroes.
As for the songs, they’re a mixture of original songs by Willie and co-writers, some by Lukas and covers of songs by people like Tom Waits, Pearl Jam and Coldplay. The latter two are particularly successful, with the master interpreter’s vocals delivering an incredible performance on closing track The Scientist. It’s maybe not as remarkable as Johnny Cash doing Hurt, but it’s just as good.
Just Breathe is also excellent, one of the best Pearl Jam songs of recent years and perfect for a duet by the two generation of Nelsons, while Come On Up To The House has nice vocals from Crow to sweeten up the Mule Variations track. That’s just a couple of examples why the potentially disastrous collaborative approach works so well here.
There’s plenty of others, with Lukas not outstaying his welcome and Willie in just wonderful vocal form. It’s almost hard to believe that he’ll ever stop, or ever hit a particularly bad run of form, which is incredible for someone who’ll be 80 next year. But Willie Nelson’s always been a one-off and remains a unique kind of musical treasure.