This Old Road
wo consecutive songs on Kris Kristofferson’s This Old Road exemplify the best and worst aspects of the album; though the former category outweighs the latter by a large margin, let’s start with the downside. “Wild American” pays tribute to “the one they never tamed,” who “stood your ground / And they could not make you change.” We know it’s about left wing radicals, for a few reasons, not the least of which is Kristofferson’s name-checking of activist-artists like John Trudell and Steve Earle between verses. Kristofferson himself has never been vague about where he stands; this is a man who committed defiant career suicide in the late 1980s by singing tributes to Jesse Jackson and the Sandinistas.
We know all this, but if we didn’t the song might well appeal to some regressive nationalist notion of Americanism. In its key lines Kristofferson announces, “when they burn your brother down in the name of Freedom / I don’t care if it’s left or right, it’s wrong,” and in their bland evasion of politics the lyrics could come straight out of the knee-jerk patriotism of some kinder, gentler Toby Keith song. Correct me if I’m wrong here, but one thing the left cannot be accused of (except by evangelical bigots who perversely reconfigure anti-homophobia as “Christophobia”) is exploiting the idea of freedom to serve a repressive agenda. That particular Orwellian tactic is part and parcel of the modern conservative framework, and by diffusing the blame rather than directing it where it belongs, Kristofferson shows unexpected and regrettable timidity, failing to meet his own “Wild American” criteria.
It’s not that I expect him to show up on the album cover wearing an ITMFA button, but in these politically-charged times such an apolitical swerve by such an outspoken singer-songwriter reeks of a fear of getting Dixie-Chicked, or of receiving the “fair and balanced” treatment Bill O’Reilly gave Ludacris (for less political reasons). That being said, the next track, “In the News,” more than compensates. Like “Wild American,” and indeed most of the eleven tracks on This Old Road, it’s delivered in a spartan arrangement of voice and acoustic guitar. Kristofferson strums simple chords, and his weather-beaten voice needs not strain to command authority and wisdom. On this quietly-moving anti-war song Kristofferson more clearly indicts war-pig neoconservatives, but in the context of a graceful elegy rather than, say, the explosive catharsis of Bright Eyes’ “When the President Talks to God” (which failed in its bid for movement-anthem status by its utter lack of melody, but packed an undeniable punch). The chorus even presents itself as God crying:
Not in my name, not on my groundIt’s a song even a pro-life Bill Frist supporter in Tennessee could conceivably get behind, which means it stands some chance of becoming the “We Shall Overcome” of the contemporary anti-war movement. There’s an odd bookend verse referencing the Scott Peterson murder case, which seems a bit off-putting until it becomes clear that tragic and cruel waste of life is Kristofferson’s metaphor for the Bush administration’s treatment of the American (and Iraqi) people. Kristofferson sings without vitriol, but with convincing sorrow and determination, giving “In the News” an undeniable power.
I want nothing but the ending of the war
No more killing, or it’s over
And the mystery won’t matter anymore
Elsewhere, This Old Road looks backward as often as forward, as Kristofferson takes stock of a life filled with both success and failure. “Pilgrim’s Progress” updates the 1973 classic “The Pilgrim: Chapter 33;” he’s no longer a prophet, a pusher, or a walking contradiction, but he’s apparently decided the goin’ up was worth the comin’ down, as several tributes to his wife and family attest. We get more shout-outs to old buddies than the OBD offered on “I Can’t Wait,” as everyone from Janis Joplin to Ray Charles to John Lennon gets a name-check over the course of the album. Two old songs appear here in newly stripped-down form; the title track first appeared on Repossessed in 1986, while “The Burden of Freedom” was written in the late 60s and recorded in the early 70s. The format suits the artist well, as producer Don Was achieves a living-room intimacy with only a few minor interventions by himself on bass, Jim Keltner on drums, and Stephen Bruton on mandolin and harmony vocals.
These infrequent touches add color in useful spots, as when Was’ acoustic bass brings a pulse to “Chase the Feeling” that nicely complements its theme of the temptations of drink and drugs. The American Recordings series by Kristofferson’s fellow Highwayman Johnny Cash serve as the obvious template here, but unlike Cash, Kristofferson isn’t known for his interpretations (for that matter, he’s taken more than his fair share of criticism for his voice over the years, which has always struck me as ridiculous; if you want robotic tonal precision, go listen to Celine Dion, who would have a hard time selling lyrics about beer for breakfast on Sunday morning), and This Old Road doesn’t carry the same derivative weight as Neil Diamond’s 12 Songs.
The bare-bones approach suits Kristofferson’s contemplative songs well, matching his lyrics, which are unencumbered by the hyper-subjectivity that often marks the songwriting of the younger indie set. Extreme specificity has its place, bringing an emotional charge to listeners who share the particular experiences or demographics of the bands, but Kristofferson understands the power of a more classical universalism. When he sings, “I know the story / I read the papers / I see the anger / I feel it too” on “Holy Creation,” it lacks the youthfully visceral punch of—to quote yet another Bright Eyes example (hey, it’s not like anti-war songs are exactly clogging the airwaves)—Conor Oberst telling us, “I read the body count out of the paper / Now it’s written all over my face.” But while Kristofferson is now more of a silver-haired grandfather than a silver-tongued devil, the song carries just as much force, making up in simplicity and directness what it lacks in poetic imagery. This Old Road may not pave any new paths, but as its title suggests, that isn’t its goal. Instead, with gentle dignity it reminds anyone who had written Kris Kristofferson off as the haggard old man who dubiously spawned Jessica Biel in the Blade movies that buried in an often hokey Hollywood career lies one of our premiere singer-songwriters. His wheels may not leave the traction marks they once did, but the evidence here suggests the ride isn’t over yet.
Reviewed by: Whitney Strub
Reviewed on: 2006-03-15