Only a supreme talent like Willie Nelson could write a tearjerker about bad breath. At 85 years old, his subject matter has naturally turned toward death and self-reflection. In a mixture of protesting honky tonk jams and mournful ballads, he touches on the state of the country and the state of the individuals he has come across in his life.
In the title track opener, he’s unsure of what he wants, whether he wants to outlive his friends – Waylon, Ray, Merles, and Old Norro. He doesn’t want to die but losing friends like that has affected him greatly. It’s a battle anyone is familiar with, whether to stay alive or avoid the pain of loss.
On ‘Bad Breath’, Nelson puts on full display his ability to craft lyrically poignant ballads. It begins innocently enough, admitting his inability to spell halitosis. But he weaves this simplistic line into a sharp lament that ‘bad breath is better than no breath at all’. The wisdom of his age shines through, noting that despite all the trivial things that humans complain about in life, it’s still better to be alive than not.
Whether about the women he’s lost or the tragic death of his son, ‘Something You Get Through’ is the optimism that lives at the bottom of heartbreak. There’s no getting over some tragedies in life, but eventually life will go on, and let a wise old crooner sing it softly and sweetly, like a poetic songbird.
In the blood soaked 3-peat of ‘I Ain’t Got Nothin’, ‘She Made My Day’, and ‘I’ll Try To Do Better Next Time’, Nelson gets even more honest and courageously personal, airing out his wrongdoings and the shame he’s carried. On the first of the three, he grapples with discovering what’s truly important in life. He knows he’s caused harm to others in pursuit of his dreams, and he knows all that he’s gained as well. He’s found the gaping hole inside us all, ‘I got everything a man oughta need, but I ain’t got nothin’ if you ain’t here with me’.
Nelson has been very open in the past about his adulterous habits. He’s on his fourth marriage, which is approaching thirty years, had three divorces, and has children with multiple women. He’s lived a fast, hard life, one that’s hurt a lot of people. A lack of self-control is all it takes for a moment to ruin everything, which he knows, singing ‘She made my day, but it ruined my life. She smiled at me I did not think twice’.
On the last of the three, he accepts responsibility and pledges to do better. With the success of this current marriage, it shows that he isn’t all talk.
It’s not his best and it’s not his worst. For him it was a welcome mix of new subject material, and the same old soulful guitar and gentle voice that has brought him many accolades. It’s rare that a person so poignant offers so much to the world, baring all triumphs and transgressions. The lessons he’s learned have taught him well, and he wants to share them with others. He learned from experience, so maybe someone else won’t have to.
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‘Last Man Standing’ is out now via Sony Music Entertainment, peaking at number 14 on the Billboard 200. The albums full track listing is as follows…
1. Last Man Standing
2. Don’t Tell Noah
3. Bad Breath
4. Me and You
5. Something You Get Through
6. Ready to Roar
7. Heaven Is Closed
8. I Ain’t Got Nothin’
9. She Made My Day
10. I’ll Try to Do Better Next Time
11. Very Far to Crawl