It’s a game, but Kristofferson plays it well. He had a croaky voice in his 30s and even then was writing well about death-drives and shaky mornings. (He’s been writing explicit old-man reflections for a little while now; his album This Old Road, from 2005, contained a song called Thank You for a Life that seemed like a preparation for disappearance.) On Feeling Mortal, produced by Don Was, with a band including the pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz and the violinist Sara Watkins, he sounds so relaxed that he’s practically supine, but there’s work and thought going on inside him.
You’ll want a lyric sheet. Kristofferson’s voice wavers, indicating general pitch areas rather than specific notes, and he doesn’t use it artfully to stress images or ideas as he rolls through the words. Some of those lyrics though can be dense and strong, working inside and outside the styles and structures of his best years.
For the most part, he’s looking at himself. There’s a song in which the songwriter compares himself to a boat with torn sails. There are some second-person songs that are really altered first-person: Just Suppose, aimed familiarly toward a guy who’s preparing to chase an old girlfriend; and Stairway to the Bottom, which is an almost classical mid-1960s-style country-music interior monologue. (“I watch you climb that stairway to the bottom/every evening, in that mirror on the wall.”) And You Don’t Tell Me What to Do, the album’s fullest track in sound and word, comes from the point of view of the songwriter’s inner spirit, which might be different from the songwriter himself.
But its most outwardly shaggy song, with buzzing guitar strings and a couple of places where Kristofferson laughs at himself while singing, turns out to be its most stable and wise: The One You Chose, directed at a mate, ends with lines that contain wisdom in their great uncertainty.
Holding on to something that keeps holding us together
Stronger than the circumstances tearing us apart
I’ve just got a feeling, if I’m wrong you can correct me
I believe I just sang my way back into your heart.
Those aren’t the album’s closing lines, but they should be.
— BEN RATLIFF, NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE