Album Review – Willie Nelson’s “Heroes”

May 21, 2012 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  23 Comments

When an artist rises to such other-worldly status as the one Willie Nelson enjoys, you’re never really sure when listening to a new album if there’s actually some real substance behind the new music, or if you’re simply so wooed by the legacy and mere sound of the man’s voice that he could sing a shopping list and you’d love it.

America experienced this sensation first hand during the Super Bowl this year when Willie’s signature warble showed up in a random Chipotle commercial. It was Coldplay’s song “The Scientist” Willie was singing? Who cares, it was Willie, and we get to relive that moment when that same song caps off his latest record, Heroes.

Popular media has been portraying Heroes as Willie’s pot opus. He initially wanted to call the album “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” for the album’s second track featuring Snoop Dogg among other guests. I’ve said my peace about how I hope Willie Nelson’s legacy is remembered for more than marijuana, but as a song, the “Roll Me Up” title track runner-up is a really fun, witty vintage Willie song. But let’s not bury the lead here about the best thing Heroes has to offer, which is a full scale collaboration between Willie and his singularly-talented son Lukas Nelson, who appears so much on this album, he really should get his name in small type somewhere on the front cover.

As I said in my review of Lukas’s latest album, he is the offspring most rich with Willie blood, with top-shelf guitar playing abilities all his own to boot. If you want to know what a rock & roll version of Willie would be, look to Lukas. Close your eyes when Lukas is singing, and you can almost see Willie, with Lukas’s natural, high-register tone, and perfect pitch and control that doesn’t ape Willie, but evokes his memory. You put these two men together in a song, and it’s a country music audiophile’s orgasm. It is a super-pairing employing skill, legacy, and a cross-generational storyline into a sublime musical experience.

But the Willie/Lukas collaboration is not by far where Heroes stops giving. From a songwriting perspective, this album has some amazing compositions, from the eloquent to the witty, from writers as far ranging as Eddie Vedder, Fred Rose and Bob Wills, to Tom Waits. Once again Lukas shows up prominently in the songwriter notes, contributing three songs himself.

Some have said this album lacks focus. I say it scores points for variety and freshness. From the heart-wrenching songs of love sung by the Lukas/Willie pairing like “The Sound of Your Memory” to the fun, yet poignant and uplifting “Come On Back Jesus (and pick up John Wayne on the way)”, the album touches on all the moods you want to hear from Willie. I’m so glad they decided to roll with with the Heroes title for this release; a much more classy choice that gives an extra shout out to Billy Joe Shaver in the only song Willie wrote by himself on the album.

Where the album may come across as too busy or unfocused is the amount of contributors to each composition, and to the album as a whole. Lukas, Jamey Johnson a couple of times, Kris Kristofferson, Snoop Dogg, Merle Haggard, Ray Price, Billy Joe Shaver, Willie’s other son Micah, the omnipresent and overexposed Sheryl Crow, they all appear, and this doesn’t even mention all the musicians. Sure, many of these names we love, but there’s too many of them, diverting focus from any one pairing or performance. At times in this album you want to clear the room and just hear Willie, for the same reasons he can single-handedly make a Coldplay song sound like a masterpiece (the Coldplay song is the only one on the album where Willie rides solo).

It’s Willie’s nature to invite anyone and everyone into the process, and his big heart is one of the reasons why we love him so. But at some point you reach a limit with collaboration, especially since Willie likes to sing in such an unusual, off-tempo pentameter that makes him not the best duet partner, and because this album is in no way presented as a “duets” release. I love the cover of Heroes though. Willie’s inspiring and calming countenance speaks countless words and stories, and the plaintive cover allows his visage to speak for itself without interruption or embellishment. It recollects to the etching on the front of his magnum opus Red Headed Stranger.

This album is good both because it is Willie, and because it is good. After years of navigating through a gray area in his career and having to dabble with some record labels probably less able to do a Willie release justice, he’s back with the same company who released Red Headed Stranger, and back to making albums worthy of the world stopping down to pay attention to.

1 3/4 of 2 guns up.

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Preview & Purchase Tracks from Heroes.


23 Comments to “Album Review – Willie Nelson’s “Heroes””

  • I really like this album and I definitely see it as Willie introducing Lucas to his wider audience. At least that’s what I hope happens because Lucas deserves more recognition than he gets.

    • Yes, I actually meant Lukas.

    • amen!
      ive been listening to his bands music pretty much nonstop since i first read about him on this website last month.

    • For anybody who needs to be sold on Lukas’ guitar playing ability:

      • Wow, one of the only times I’ve actually enjoyed a version other than Ray Vaughan’s. It’s incredible how versatile Lukas is…

  • I’ll be picking this one up next month when my monthly downloads refresh on emusic.

  • Hey man i got a suggestion for your rating system. How about instead of two guns, you do 12 bullets? i feel like that would be better for you than having to give quarters of a gun :D but hey your site, your shit.

    • The “guns up” rating system is an admittedly dumb, confusing, and proprietary thing that could be better. When an album or song gets two guns up, or two guns down, or is exactly in the middle, it works perfect. All the other times it looks silly. I thought I could resolve this by making a physical representation, like images of stars like some sites use, but using guns instead of stars. But trying to figure out the images got just as confusing as it is now. If anybody wants to put together a set of images to physically represent guns up, guns down, and 5 variations in-between for use in album reviews, I’m looking!

      • probably already been used elsewhere but how about 0-6 bullets

        • image would be the bullets in the cylinder i guess

    • I like your two guns! I say don’t change it. To me it’s always just a nice little round-off to your always stellar reviews. I wonder if some folks would prefer a more specific rating system so they can get around having to take the time to read your reviews. Taking a short-cut, if you will ;P

      It’s about the body of the review, not the guns or rating. I also reckon it could see you running into trouble down the track – if you adopt a very specific rating system you have to be very definitive. Take for example JTE’s latest album. When you wrote your review you were still absorbing it, so how do you rate that? Say you give it 10 out of 12 bullets when you write the review, then decide to award him ‘Album of the Year’ several months down the track. You will be challenged no end about how you only gave the album 10 out of 12 bullets and if it was so good why was it not given a higher rating? I see that if you decide to get really pedantic with a rating system you will be forced to keep amending them. Does that make sense? I say if it ain’t broke ….

  • two guns. six bullets. or double aught with an ‘a’ or ‘o’. doesn’t matter. it’s always nice when one of the classics still has something going for themselves. buying this one.

  • Thanks for another thoughtful and engaging review, Triggerman. I like this album a lot, myself. I hadn’t heard Lukas before this, but was amazed on “Every time he drinks” and “Come on up to the house” how much he sounds like Willie from the 70′s. He reminded me of The Sound In Your Mind in particular, for some reason, but the overall resemblance is uncanny, especially considering how distinctive and inimitable Willie’s voice is. I thought Lukas stole the show on those two tracks, and he made me wish he did more recording in country. Maybe it’s just my own bias or familiarity with Willie, but I think country suits his voice and style really, really well. Any chance of his working in both genres, or bringing more of a country sound to the POTR? Anyone know? I hope so at any rate.

    Thanks again for the review.

    • I think Lukas will get to his country phase at some point. We all need to appreciate just how young he is. You behold his talent and you know he’s Willie’s son, and it’s feasible he could be in his 50′s, but I believe he just turned 22 or 23.

    • New England.

      I just saw Lukas and POTR last week. There should be no concerns with the direction he is going.
      I think there is a bit to much of a push from some here that Lukas is simply a rock and roll Willie. Not the case. Sure he rocks out, but it isn’t U2 shit, it is more SRV (Stevie Ray Vaughn) blues/rock.

      • Thanks to both of you for responding. I’m not concerned (who am I to be concerned?) so much as hopeful that he might transition to country. I recognize there are gradations of rock and better and worse versions of it – but I don’t listen to any of it myself. That’s obviously just my own preference. Country/bluegrass/folk/roots music strikes me as more authentic, more raw, more natural than rock does, however good it may be. Again, just my preference. I hope Lukas does plenty of country in his career because it’s clear to me from this album he’s damned good at it. Especially, as Trig says, considering he’s so young and still has, remarkably, lots of time to get even better.

  • Today I heard a real country-song on dutch national popradio. It was Roll me up, and probably the main reason it got played was that Snoop Dogg is on it. That didn’t really matter to me, I loved hearing Willie Nelson on the radio, I have been listening to Heroes a lot over the past few days, and I sort of hoped or expected that this album would somehow get some attention. Coldplay and Eddie Vedder/Pearl Jam are all over the radio all the time, and remarkable covers will get noticed. Without them this album would not be played. So I think it’s a pretty smart move to include them. The Scientist may be from the Superbowl, but that’s not nearly as big over here as it is in the USA, and certainly since the infamous Janet Jackson nipple incident our attention has been more for the halftime-break than for the sport.
    But it’s smart, songs that can appeal to a younger audience, while at the same moment presenting the young talent of his son Lukas as a country-artist ( I already knew he could play the guitar, I have checked out his latest cd and that didn’t really get to me) and I love his presence on Heroes. It also reminds of the songs of contemporary artists Johnny Cash did on his American Recordings.
    I love Heroes, and I although I can agree that there are a few too many guests on it, not one of them takes over a song. It’s a Willie Nelson-album, and it’s one of his best.
    Now we had Marty Stuart with a damn good cd, Willie Nelson made this classic, who’s the next veteran of country-music to step up and show what real country is all about…..

  • This seems like basically a Lukas/Willie Nelson collaboration album and it absolutely works. I hadn’t heard Lukas until now but he’s awesome. His voice at times seems like a cross between Willie and Hank III and I really like it. After Willie’s mostly excellent “Country Music” album, this is a really cool next step. This old man is not stopping.

    • Also, I forgot to say this is a really good review (full of substance) and I really enjoyed your article on Scott Borchetta and his label’s place on Music Row.

    • Yeah Lukas Nelson’s voice is really cool.

  • I’ll preface this by saying I’ve not heard the album. I’ll add it to my list of music to check out but frankly it’s not at the top. I’m much more interested in getting my hands on the JP Harris record, or finding some Sturg and the Hightop Mountain Boys on Youtube, or….you get the idea. I would love for Willie to release a Willie Nelson record or even go in a different direction entirely like Cash did towards the end. As for collaborators, I’d rather see him pass the torch to some of the new blood that’s fighting Music Row and give them some exposure. It’d be a cool tip of thte hat to Waylon to hear him do Pancho and Lefty with Shooter. Willie and Leroy Virgil doing a viral Goodhearted Woman or Mama Tried. I’ll admit the Willie/Lukas comments everyone’s written have me curious but I’m over Sheryl Crow’s tired ass latching on to projects and like you, Triggerman, I don’t want Willie’s musical legacy to be overshadowed by his marijuana activism. Some jackass to this day always makes an IRS crack when you put on Willie in a group setting. With the Snoop Dog “duet” it’s almost a caricature or a bad SNL skit. It also comes across as hypocritical with the Colt Ford/country rap bashing that goes on around here.

    Someone will post it so I’ll save the trouble. It’s not my place to tell Willie what to record and who to record it with. But I’m still waiting for that last “kick in the teeth” kinda record. Not necessarily heavy, but heavy that once it starts playing you can’t get out of your chair til it’s done.

    Like I said, I haven’t heard it but I’m not in a big hurry to either, if it wasn’t Willie this wouldn’t even be on the radar. I hope I’m wrong.

  • I learn the guitar because of willie well james taylor too. What a legend and great writer, I saw him in Lake Tahoe long time ago in his hay day, He dominated the radio
    back then, you could not turn the radio on and not hear him a few times a day, The outlaw days , Country sure has come along way since them days. Gut written songs
    no fluff from willie . Ha Ha,I miss them days.

  • I saw a show he passed on the Gambler tune that Kenny Rogers recorded, He said it was to long in lyrics ha ha ha.

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