Album Review: Kris Kristofferson – Closer To The Bone
Listening to a Kris Kristofferson record for his melodious singing voice is a little bit like reading The New Yorker solely for the cartoons. Kristofferson—one of the greatest songwriters country music has known—has never been the strongest singer, even in his prime, but here he sounds every day of his 73 years. Still, while he may not be a good singer, he is certainly a great one, able to make the listener feel what he’s feeling–a skill worth more than a pretty-but-soulless voice any day of the week.
Like This Old Road, Closer to the Bone is an extremely intimate album, with Kristofferson’s vocals backed by sparse arrangements. Occasionally, he’ll introduce a song as though he’s onstage: he begins “From Here to Forever” with a gruff “Here’s one I wrote for my kids.” A real treat for listeners and longtime fans is the hidden track: the “first whole song” ever written by Kristofferson. He doesn’t name names in his spoken word intro, but one’s got to wonder just who done 11-year old Kris wrong enough to inspire lyrics such as “your skin is tanned like leather/It looks just like a heifer’s/I hate you dear and I think you ought to know.” Okay, so “I Hate Your Ugly Face” may not be on par with Mozart composing at age five, but it’s still proof positive that Kris Kristofferson had the gift of songwriting at an age, when most children are preoccupied with Little League and Saturday morning cartoons.
Though he’s never been shy about his beliefs, there isn’t a lot of political ideology featured on the album; instead, the focus is on the personal. At times Closer to the Bone feels like a last will and testament, from the lyrics of the title track (“Coming from the heartbeat/Nothing but the truth now”) where he’s joined by Stephen Bruton, to Kristofferson’s celebration of dear friends who’ve passed on. The album itself is dedicated to the late Bruton, who contributed guitar, mandolin, and backing vocals to the album, and played guitar with Kris for 40 years before succumbing to cancer earlier this year. Bruton, with Kristofferson and Glen Clark, also co-wrote “From Here to Forever,” a song whose chorus—”Darling, if we’re not together/There’s one thing I want you know/I’ll love you from here to forever/And be here wherever you go”—is now even more poignant.
Kristofferson also pays tribute to friend Johnny Cash with “Good Morning John,” a song written about Cash’s struggles with addiction. It’s rare to find such an honest expression of love from one man to another unless he’s singing about his father and/or brother, and for that reason alone, “Good Morning John” stands out. Through this song we’re given a brief peek into the friendship between two artists and the person behind the Man in Black image as Kristofferson speak-sings “There ain’t nothing you can’t handle now ’cause there ain’t nothing bigger than your heart/Keep smiling, John/For you owe it to the others and the dark and holy wonder that you are.”
Like Guy Clark’s recent release Somedays the Song Writes You, Closer to the Bone occasionally drags. Kristofferson plods through “Let the Walls Come Down,” and so-so closing track “The Wonder” ends the album with a whimper, not a bang. But after nearly 40 years as a singer-songwriter, Kris Kristofferson is still making records that burn with stark honesty and simple beauty. He may be in the twilight of his career, but his pen is still as sharp as ever.
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