Feeling Mortal is without doubt the most personal and intimate work the 76-year old Texan has released to this date. To keep in line with the album’s title, the result is a moody and rather somber affair - with only the most minimal of instrumental accompaniment, and Kristofferson’s trademark coarse baritone voice at the forefront. Mind you, the famous outlaw mentality still cuts through it like a bullwhip.
Recorded over just several days, but written over several years, the ten songs were produced by another legend, namely the almighty Don Was (a man who’s worked with pretty much every iconic band and artist under the firmament!).
Both sleeve design and inside sleeve resemble prints or ‘Wanted’ posters typical of the Old West, the bleed of its edges seemingly torched by flames. This much sums up the contents of the songs: personal accounts and reflections of someone who’s been around the block many a times, had a brush or two with the law (not to mention other demons), but always emerged stirred but not shaken and stayed ahead to sing the tale.
Opener Feeling Mortal offers a taste of what’s in store when Kristofferson announces “Wide awake and feeling mortal / at this moment in time…” even before the first chords of his guitar set in. Despite admitting that he’s broken many rules and promises, and that sooner or later he’ll be ‘leaving’, he’ll come out a winner either way. Now that’s the spirit! The arrangement is sparser then sparse, instead, it’s the words that are the driving force of the song.
Although mortality is also the theme of second track, Mama Stewart, this number about an old and blind lady on her deathbed reflects some optimism due to its slightly more harmonious arrangement. Because of her, our anti-hero gets ‘to see’ things he’d grown blind to in his past.
Bread For The Body is a more full-bodied and upbeat affair, with the addition of Sara Watkin’s strings and some proper country-style guitar play. The message of its chorus “Life is a song for the dying to sing, it’s gotta have feeling to mean anything / The time that we travel from cradle to grave was meant to be spent and not meant to be saved…” is one we should perhaps all embrace.
The classic country and western arrangement of Just Suppose is on a par with the former number.
Kristofferson’s sense for irony becomes particularly evident on the track Castaway, when he muses “One day as I was sailing on the Caribbean Sea I spied a little fishing vessel drifting aimlessly / Her sails were torn and tattered… I told myself that little boat sure looks a lot like me”. Never one to shy away from a self-reflecting send-up, the choice of musical arrangement somewhat contrasts the words – not exactly shanty but more campfire allure.
The wonderfully titled Stairway To The Bottom is very much in the vein of fellow crooner Leonard Cohen. In fact, Kristofferson seems a fan in any case, seeing how he would like the first three lines of Cohen's Bird on the Wire on his tombstone when his time has come. Sure enough here’s an artist who confronts himself with mortality!
With closing track Rambling Jack we get another fine ditty, about the highs and lows of good times, bad times and above all, wasted times. The spirit of Kristofferson’s movie character Martin 'Rubber Duck' Penwald in Peckinpah’s 1978 action flick Convoy shines through.
However, the most poignant song in terms of summing up Kristofferson’s stance on life, is the grim reaper challenging Don’t Tell Me What To Do: “So the highway is where I believe I belong / Losing myself in the soul of a song / And the fight for the right to be righteously wrong / It’s a story that’s sad but true”. Could well have been a duet with fellow outlaw Willie Nelson, or the late Johnny Cash.
Feeling Mortal is a hauntingly beautiful album by a truly gifted artist, supported by Mark Goldenberg and Greg Leisz on guitars and pedal steel, Sean Hurley on bass, Matt Rollings on keys, Aaron Sterling on drums, and Sara Watkins on violin and backing vox.