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Willie Nelson at 85: «Last Man Standing»

Willie Nelson turns 85 years old on April 29. It’s become a tradition for him to release an album around his birthday; Last Man Standing, his 73rd studio album and eighth since 2012 with Sony’s Legacy Recordings, is a fitting next episode in Nelson’s late-career renaissance.

Teaming up again with producer/songwriter Buddy Cannon, the duo penned 11 new songs for the album. Like on 2017’s God’s Problem Child, Nelson takes inventory of those that departed on Last Man Standing. On the opening title track (watch below), he name-checks Waylon Jennings, Ray Price, Merle Haggard and songwriter Norris Wilson, and wonders “who the next will be.” Despite the sad theme, Nelson’s sunny delivery and clever wordplay make for a fun tune as he jokingly sings, “I don’t want to be the last man standing/On second thought, maybe I do.”

The album’s filled with homespun wisdom about life and death, and making the most of what comes between. Over honky-tonk piano lines and Mickey Raphael’s slinky harmonica, Nelson adds a political charge to his musings on “Don’t Tell Noah” when he insists, “Don’t quit trying to change the government/And make them see how wrong they went.”

Nelson’s Trump-era bewilderment also surfaces on “Me and You” (“It’s like I’m in some moron country/I’ve never seen before”), which suggests circling the wagons with the ones you love (“The world has gone out of its mind/Except for me and you”). Unlike the Nelson favorite “Me and Paul,” there’s no reference to getting busted for weed.

But that sentiment comes through on the rollicking Western-swing number, “Ready to Roar,” when Nelson recalls: “Well, I picked up a lid from a friend of mine/And the man picked me up, now I’m doing time.” Nelson has been arrested for marijuana four times.

The heart and soul of the album, the ballad “Something You Get Through,” is destined to take its place among Nelson’s all-time classics like “Always on My Mind” and “Crazy.” Based on a conversation with a close friend who’d just lost her husband, it offers not simply consolation, but strength: “It’s not something you get over, but it’s something you get through.” Accompanied by a funereal organ and Raphael’s plaintive harmonica, the song provides the album’s overall message: “Life goes on and on/And when it’s gone/It lives in someone new.”

Willie Nelson with Merle Haggard (left), who passed away in 2016, (Photo by Danny Clinch)

Much of Last Man Standing belies that sense of mortality with Nelson’s “refuse to go gently” spirit. Along with “Ready to Roar,» the back-to-back tracks about femme fatales he fell for also rollick. On “I Ain’t Got Nothin’,” Nelson’s left high and dry by a shameless gold-digger (“I gave you the ring/And you gave me the wringer”). It also includes a weed reference. And on “She Made My Day,” an innocent flirtation turns into a “world of strife” (“She made my day/But it ruined my life”).

Another fun track, Nelson’s hilarious waltz-tempo ode to liquor-induced “Bad Breath,” finds him ruminating about halitosis (“a word I never could spell”) and bad breath, which “is better than no breath at all.”

On the metaphysical two-step “Heaven Is Closed,» Nelson toasts everyone with this herbal blessing:

Let’s burn one for those still living in hell

Let’s burn one for those who think they’re in heaven

Burn one for everyone in the whole world

And anyone stuck in between

The rueful “I’ll Try to Do Better Next Time” and eerie “Very Far to Crawl” that close out the album add a level of sobriety to what is otherwise a celebration of a very lively octogenarian troubadour who’s not only surviving, but artistically thriving. This Last Man Standing plans to squeeze every drop out of his time left on Earth.

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