“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. But old age has sharpened Nelson’s focus as a songwriter, providing him with renewed purpose as a lyricist and heightened vulnerability as a vocalist. So unlike 2014’s retrospective smorgasbord Band of Brothers, 2015’s loving collaboration with Merle Haggard Django & Jimmie, or his recent collections of reverent tributes to Ray Price and Gershwin, God’s Problem Child is a tightly-woven, poignant collection of ruminations on aging and fading faculties that amounts to Nelson’s most moving album in decades.
Set to longtime producer Buddy Cannon’s sparse, elegant country arrangements, these songs are brimming with bleak prophecy and spiritual acceptance, as Nelson ponders his eternal home (“Little House on the Hill”), everlasting compassion (“True Love”), and his fallen comrade Merle Haggard (“He Won’t Ever Be Gone”).
On songs like “Your Memory Has a Mind of Its Own” and “Old
Timer,” Nelson addresses his devastating second-person meditations about physical deterioration to himself, a clever narrative device that packs a heavy punch: “You think that you’re still a young bull rider/Till you look in the mirror and see/An old timer,” Nelson sings with impeccable phrasing in the latter, delivering the title phrase in a quivering melody that lays bare the song’s heavy emotion.