Kris Kristofferson would surely belong on any list of the greatest American singer-songwriters but for one simple fact: He can't sing. For much of his career, this niggling detail has been a bigger handicap than his admirers admitted — an even bigger handicap than his lyrics 'gradual devolution into good-hearted but wooden agitprop.
So it's news enough that as Kristofferson closes in on seventy, his croak has at last settled warmly into its distinctive crags on This Old Road. But here's the real crazy part: This Old Road works not in spite of, but because of, the vocals. Don Was produces the album respectfully yet with noticeable intimacy, displaying the same hands-off tendency with which Rick Rubin originally recorded Johnny Cash. In other words, it's mostly Kristofferson and his beat-up acoustic guitar.
This Old Road is an old man's album, and Kristofferson makes for a damn credible old man. Age-earned wisdom doesn't necessarily surface in the lyrics — he still loads up his songs with plenty of angels and highways and roams the faux folkways that lazy songwriters think provide a shortcut to the Truth. But on the title track, the weathered authority of his voice allows him to wring a wholly unforced pathos from a wistful glance at an old photo of himself. And "Chase the Feeling" is an uncommonly perceptive take on addiction that understands the addict's justifications while still calling him on his bullshit.
As for politics, Kristofferson's still a Hollywood radical, and at best his comfortable distance from the disenfranchised battles his genuine empathy for them to a draw. Still, the old-fashioned sing-along "Pilgrim's Progress" sounds genuinely rally-worthy, and its chorus's insistence on self-betterment personalizes its politics as well. On "The News," God responds to those who go to war believing He's on their side with "Not in my name/ Not on my ground." And on "The Burden of Freedom," the man who famously once considered freedom just another word for nothing left to lose now sees it as a responsibility to be borne. "Lord, help me to shoulder the burden of freedom," he sings, and apparently He's responding. When an icon like Springsteen or even a scrapper like Steve Earle takes on that kind of weighty significance, he strains and wobbles underneath its weight. Kristofferson? He's never sounded more comfortable.