Acclaimed tunesmith Kris Kristofferson has spent much of the past decade in a reflective mood, crafting what he loosely describes as a "twilight years trilogy" with producer Don Was. (Previous chapters include 2009's Closer to the Bone and 2006's This Old Road.) Feeling Mortal, the latest installment, and Kristofferson's first album in four years, establishes its stakes up front: "Wide awake and feeling mortal," the 76-year-old Brownsville native intones on the title track, "that old man there in the mirror/And my shaky self-esteem."
Kristofferson's lilting baritone has always sounded older and more weary than its owner; as he has aged, however, its valleys have deepened, as have its shadows. He's nowhere near Bob Dylan's sepulchral croak, but there's a glottal grittiness and heartbreaking quaver evident, which tinges even the most upbeat song -- whether it's the sun-kissed Castaway or the defiant You Don't Tell Me What to Do -- with melancholy.
Sonically, Feeling Mortal reaches back to country's early-to-mid-'70s heyday, layering on the pedal steel and fiddle more commonly associated with folk and alt-country acts these days. Kristofferson also dusts off compositions from that period, offering up My Heart Was the Last One to Know, which he co-wrote with the late Shel Silverstein in 1970. Ramblin' Jack, which closes out the record, pays affectionate tribute to Ramblin' Jack Elliott, a longtime Kristofferson pal, who is likewise in the midst of his autumn years.
In the end, Feeling Mortal makes no grand statement, as if the album's very existence is enough. Listen closely, however, and you'll discover what Kristofferson knows deep within his bones: Treasure this life, with its bruises and low moments, and don't take any of it for granted.