Listening to a new Willie Nelson album with a set of fresh ears is almost impossible to do in 2017 – and Nelson knows it. Hovering over all news regarding the Red Headed Stranger are worries about the health of the country icon, who turns 84 on April 29th. So he decided to make the elephant in the room – his own mortality – the focal point of his new LP, God’s Problem Child.
Nelson’s first album since his 2015 collaboration with Merle Haggard, Django & Jimmie – the Hag’s final album before his own death – God’s Problem Child is a stark, honest, sometimes bleak, and often funny look at mortality and the specter of his own death. It may not be a concept album, but that grim reality is writ large on nearly every song.
That doesn’t mean God’s Problem Child makes for heavy listening. Nelson brings not only his distinctive sense of humor to the proceedings, but also an appreciation for the moments that he has left, and those individual glimpses of beauty leave a lasting impression. Here’s our track-by-track guide to the new album, which arrives April 28th.
“Little House On the Hill” (Lyndel Rhodes)
The opening track on God’s Problem Child is its jauntiest, and also its most heartwarming, written by Lyndel Rhodes, the 92-year-old mother of Buddy Cannon, the producer and songwriter who co-wrote half the songs on the album. A video of a joyous Rhodes hearing Nelson sing her song for the first time went viral last fall, and the comforting memories of “Little House on the Hill,” a reimagining of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” carry an end-of-days undercurrent that sets the tone for the album.
“Old Timer” (Donnie Fritz/Lenny LeBlanc)
Nelson confronts those end of days head on in “Old Timer,” a mournful, piano-driven ballad that ruminates on the ravages of time – and how time is leaving Nelson behind. “You’ve had your run / and it’s been a good one,” goes the opening line, as though to console the listener before the bad news to come about the “old timer” who thinks he’s “still a young bull rider.” Nelson’s vocal – quivering and frail, thoughtful and proud – is the first of many stellar ones on the record, conveying every ounce of that life well lived.
“True Love” (Willie Nelson/Buddy Cannon)
Even on the cusp of his 84th birthday, Nelson remains a hopeless romantic. The first writing credit for the Red Headed Stranger on God’s Problem Child, “True Love” is his fire-and-brimstone vision of never giving up hope. But love alone is no salvation: “I’ll go to hell believing true love is still my friend,” he sings, his optimism both a blessing and a curse, his memories – and even his mortal coil – a “prison.” Hopeless, indeed.
“Delete and Fast Forward” (Willie Nelson/Buddy Cannon)
Much of God’s Problem Child focuses on the personal, but “Delete and Fast Forward” is Nelson’s bemused look at the political world around him, a winner-take-nothing appraisal of today’s mess in the White House. “The truth is the truth, but believe what you choose,” he sings, shrugging at the alternative facts that could make a mushroom cloud feel like a sordid punchline. But even if he’d rather get a fresh start and skip to the next scene, Nelson sees history repeating itself: “We had a chance to be brilliant and we blew it again,” he laments.
“A Woman’s Love” (Mike Reid/Sam Hunter)
Once again, Nelson’s own weathered voice is his greatest, most expressive tool on “A Woman’s Love,” the flip side to the tortured romantic visions of “True Love.” His singing is deep and gruff, conjuring the darkest, most sensual of passions. Accented by fragmented Spanish guitar lines and a wailing harmonica solo, “A Woman’s Love” is a love letter to womankind, but also a cautionary tale – Nelson’s most profound bit of wisdom to impart to his younger self.
“Your Memory Has a Mind” (Willie Nelson/Buddy Cannon)
“If your memory had ears they’d be burning,” Nelson sings on the bridge of this playful tune, which breaks from the heavy tone of God’s Problem Child‘ss other love songs. Yes, he might not be able to control those memories of the one that got away (even smoking and drinking won’t help), but there’s a comic relief in the tortured fate that he finds himself in: “If your memory had a heart, it’d leave me alone,” Nelson sings, knowing full well that it won’t.
“Butterfly” (Sonny Throckmorton/Mark Sherrill)
Coming at the midpoint of the album, this tender ballad by Sonny Throckmorton and Mark Sherrill, underpinned by noodling electric guitar work, turns Nelson’s eye away from his own life and toward that of the natural world. Yet, not exactly: As he ponders the beautiful butterfly flitting in and out of his view, Nelson is contemplating several things at once, like the delicacy and impenetrability of love or the fleeting nature of life itself.
“Still Not Dead” (Willie Nelson/Buddy Cannon)
Nelson has never been as darkly funny as he is on “Still Not Dead,” a song that he co-wrote with Cannon. Even the self-referential humor of 2012’s “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” has nothing on the caustic black comedy of this song, in which the Red Headed Stranger pokes fun at the constant rumors about his impending death – some, even, that he’s already kicked the bucket. “I woke up still not dead again today,” he croons, all but apologizing for the fact that the rumors aren’t true. Nelson, however, insists that he’s just too busy to die: “I’ve got a show to play.”
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“God’s Problem Child” (Jamey Johnson/Tony Joe White)
Death may be something that Nelson can poke fun at, but it’s still no laughing matter – and the title track to God’s Problem Child drives that point home. It’s the only song with guest vocalists, with one coming from beyond the grave: “God’s Problem Child” is believed to be the final song that Leon Russell ever recorded before his death last November. Russell’s passing only adds more heft to this soulful track, which also features Jamey Johnson and Tony Joe White, and it marks a thematic turning point as the album heads into the closing stretch.
“It Gets Easier” (Willie Nelson/Buddy Cannon)
Several of the songs on God’s Problem Child have been premiered with black-and-white videos of Nelson performing them in the studio with his trusty guitar, Trigger. None, however, are as sweet, as plaintive, or defiant as “It Gets Easier,” the most simple and tender ballad on the album. “I don’t have to do one damn thing that I don’t want to do,” he insists, a man who’s learned to be completely comfortable in his own skin and live on his own terms. But there’s a catch: “Except for missing you / and that won’t go away.”
“Lady Luck” (Willie Nelson/Buddy Cannon)
Life is a fickle thing, and few people appreciate that more than Nelson. With each passing year, he becomes more of a last man standing as more of his friends and partners in crime pass away. Whatever the reason, Nelson is the outlaw who gets to ride off into the sunset. Waylon, Merle, Leon – their luck all ran out before his, and Nelson is pretty sure Lady Luck is on his side. “I’ll bet you a hundred, if you still got a hundred,” he sings, ready to lay his fortune on the line one more time. It’s all or nothing.
“I Made a Mistake” (Willie Nelson/Buddy Cannon)
Steel guitar dominates this benediction of a tune, in which Nelson looks back on a life of living by his own rules and admits he may not have done everything right. “I made a mistake: I thought I was wrong,” goes his repentance. He name-checks Jesus, Elvis and Ripley (of Believe It or Not! fame) in the chorus, trying to rationalize his behavior to each, but in the end, he knows his stumbles are all his own. “So if anyone’s praying, a request I would make / is to mention my name, cause I made a mistake.”
“He Won’t Ever Be Gone” (Gary Nicholson)
God’s Problem Child saves its most heartbreaking song for last: Nelson’s tribute to his best friend, Merle Haggard. “Got the news this morning / Knew it’d be a tough day,” goes the opening couplet, as Nelson recalls hearing word of Hag’s death on April 6th, 2016. “He Won’t Ever Be Gone” chronicles the pair’s friendship while mixing in references to Haggard’s best-known songs, but it’s really a shared story involving two giants. As with most of the album, the emotional core of the song, written by Gary Nicholson, lies in what isn’t said — that while Lady Luck may have smiled on Nelson, he misses his larger-than-life friends. After all, even giants are mortal.