Nelson remains aware of time’s cruel passages but unwilling to yield to its intentions.
Willie Nelson has been releasing records rapid fire in recent years, none of them quite reaching classic status, as sturdy and surefooted as they have been. God’s Problem Child may be the best that Nelson’s offered in at least a decade. Now 84, Nelson has lost some of the sweet spots of his voice, as one expects, but if it doesn’t have all the flexibility it had during his halcyon days, it remains a distinct and fine instrument. He also manages to deliver some of his fiercest, most adventurous guitar work from anywhere in his output here.
The title tune, where Nelson’s joined by Leon Russell, Jamey Johnson and Tony Joe White, serves as a case in point: the lines jump and twist and circle back just as they always have coming from Nelson’s hands but there’s something wickedly defiant about them now as they’ve become more lyrical and mysterious than ever before. He sounds fine in that company, each of the quests rising to the challenge of standing beside the one and only. To producer/co-writer Buddy Cannon’s credit, the guest list starts and finishes there. This is a record about the man himself: his voice, his writing and, yes, his guitar. That guitar, Trigger, remains as worn but wise as ever and it remains the perfect complement to its master’s voice via those solos and some of the more gorgeous, well-realized passages. There are other matters at hand, though, some we would expect the artist to address directly.
Nelson doesn’t flinch at the idea of mortality. With several of his closest friends now on the list of the departed, it’s crossed his mind a time or two. He’s a member of one of the most influential generations of popular music, a breed that is slipping away and doing so in the age of social media where everyone grieves in public, where grief is another commodity. Death has long made good fodder for songwriting and it does here, including Nelson’s own, “Still Not Dead.” Rather than an angry charge against those who would see him riding off into the distance one last time, it’s a boast that if anyone has the stamina to go the distance and ride their tour bus to the end of the line, it’s Willie Nelson. Of course he doesn’t so much tell listeners that as remind us.
Nelson makes mention of his longtime collaborator and friend Merle Haggard via “He Won’t Ever Be Gone.” Written by Gary Nicholson, it’s hardly the crown jewel of a record that has plenty to recommend. It’s inevitable that the tune doesn’t live up to the reputation the two legends formed in their time together, but it was necessary for Nelson to say something, and soon. Taken together, these pieces provide us with a chill and a reminder that each successive album from this stalwart performer may be his last.
This release, along with recent albums by Graham Nash, Bob Dylan and Robin Trower, provides a roadmap for how to handle one’s later years. For Nelson, the answer seems to be that artistic success can be yours if you stay true to your heart and your vision while acknowledging the truths on everyone’s mind. If this is the last we hear from him (and one sincerely hopes it’s not), then it’s an effort vastly better than some ever make. Nelson remains aware of time’s cruel passages but unwilling to yield to its intentions.