I would like to invite you to listen to Kris Kristofferson’s album Feeling Mortal. I struggle to write anything useful about it, but it means a lot to me.
I hear it as a concept album, not about death, but about seeking.
Kris Kristofferson is a country music legend in his 70s. By honoring and embracing this specificity so honestly, the album reveals more universe themes.
I want to describe the music, the voice, and the words as having all been condensed to their bare essentials. The album combines the relaxed feel of musicians with nothing to prove with the delicate flourishes, the subtle harmonies, and the precise inflections that are only possible in the studio.
I invite you to notice the words that open the album.
Wide awake and feeling mortal
At this moment in the dream
That old man there in the mirror
And my shaky self-esteem
Feeling Mortal, embraces death, but as a backdrop to highlight much more.
I invite you to notice how quickly and economically the tone is set, within a song that stands alone.
…a sense of life as dream, but also being wide awake and embracing it, whatever it is. looking into the mirror, and examining a shaky self esteem.
Pretty speeches still unspoken
Perfect circles in the sand
Rules and promises I’ve broken
That I still don’t understand
I invite you to recall this theme of openness as we explore the rest of the album.
Mamma Steward moves us into a personal story. One which expands this theme of vision and acceptance.
And the things she said reminded me
Of things I’d grown too blind to see
And feelings that I’d hidden deep inside
And when she said goodbye and kissed me
I was thankful she couldn’t see
The sudden tears I couldn’t hide
And also lauds a character who is at once at peace with life as it is, but also and grateful for miracles.
But the miracle of medicine
And good old time religion
Removed the veil of darkness from her eyes
They said she praised the Lord
And thanked the doctor
And didn’t even seem at all surprised
At this point I want to acknowledge that I am veering dangerously close to just printing the lyrics and wishing I could put the music in as well. The album rewards listening, but defy’s my ability to comment usefully on it.
Yet I feel drawn to try.
Because life is a song for the dying to sing
And it’s got to have feeling to mean anything
I love this line, from Bread for the Body. It does not say something new, but nobody ever does. The best most can hope for is to say something old in a new way. This does something even better, it says something true, extremely well.
Notice the inflection on… fear my eyes. Notice how well the band swings.
If the narrator in Bread for the Body is looking back on life with a new sense of perceptive and new life lessons, the narrator of You Don’t Tell Me What To Do, inhabits a these lessons.
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 it’s true
Notice the tone here. It is assertive, and may have faults, but it is not aggressive.
With Stairway to The Bottom, the album pivots slightly. This is an old song, from one of Kris Kristofferson other great underrated albums (Spooky Lady’s Sideshow). Indeed many of the themes in the album are extensions of a careers worth of artistry.
The narrator in You Don’t Tell Me What to Do was honest but unrepentant about his faults and bad behavior in the previous track. Now we see the other side of that equation, as the narrator follows a number of country tropes, but is forced to face their consequences in the mirror.
But each lie that you’ve spoken
And each vow that you’ve broken
Was a new nail in the coffin of your soul
If you think someone’s cryin’
For the love that is dyin’
With the trust that you betray each time you fall
Look around you on that stairway to the bottom
No one’s watchin’ but that mirror on the wall
It shares with Just Suppose the tradition of great county songs: a chorus refrain that reflects something new on each turn as the song progresses.
And I expect you to expect me to feel guilty
For not giving back the love you threw away
But just suppose you really love her now like I do
What do you suppose you’d do if you were me
It could be singing directly at the narrator of the previous track. It has sympathy (Yes I guess you feel ashamed and I can’t really say I blame you/ I suppose I’d feel the same if I were you) but ultimately remains unwilling to back down.
We are now also in the realm of love songs, a new theme to which the album returns after a detour into Castaway.
One day as I was sailing on the Caribbean Sea
I spied a little fishing vessel drifting aimlessly
Her sails were torn and tattered
And her wheel was spinning free
I told myself that little boat sure looks a lot like me
On many days my favorite track on the album. I relate to it deeply. To quote myself: “The best most can hope for is to say something old in a new way. This does something even better, it says somthing true, extremely well.”
For my eyes grew accustomed to looking at you
And my arms found a body they hungered to hold
And the rest of my senses surrendered to you
But my heart was the last one to know
And in My Heart Was the Last One to Know, these themes come together, a realization too late that in matters of the heart, the eyes are sometimes not enough.
Because of the difficulty of writing about music, I have avoided it. But sounds matter. They make or break an album. Notice in The One You Choose, that not only does our narrative culminate in a confession of love…
Maybe what you see is what you got and what you wanted
Take me at my word that it’s the best that I can be
I will go down trying hard to teach you how to trust me
And I’ll love you ‘til it happens darling or eternity
… it incorporates some simple but masterful licks and honest vocals.
And to pay it all off, we pull back from personal songs to a look at how to live in the context of all that the album has taken us through:
And I know he ain’t afraid of where he’s going
And I’m sure he ain’t ashamed of where he’s been
He has paid a little piece of his soul
For every seed that he’s been sowing
And he made his own mistakes, and love, and friends
Ain’t that what matters in the end
See also: Pilgrims Progress
Let the Walls Come Down