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Heroes by Willie Nelson

After almost 20 years away, Willie Nelson has returned to the Columbia Records fold, where he made his biggest career leaps beginning in the mid-’70s. During the non-CBS years, he’d expanded his palette to include a wider circle of songs and collaborators—many from outside the country arena—and this open-door musical policy is immediately evident on Heroes, his first release for Sony’s Legacy imprint.

The nearly hour-long collection features several guests (with substantial contributions from son Lukas), yet it’s not a standard duets album, nor is it a typical Willie go-round. It’s close, though: Much of the material carries a familiarly weathered melancholy despite originating from highly varied sources. Additionally, the ever-soulful harmonica work of longtime Nelson cohort Mickey Raphael does much to connect the album’s disparate threads. Aside from Willie’s own skewed Western-saga title track, the weariest, most classic-sounding fare comes from co-producer Buddy Cannon (“That’s All There Is to This Song”) and Lukas Nelson, whose well-written originals are dead-ringers for vintage Willie.

Seattle rock band Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe” proves a comfortable fit and touches on mortality, as does the weirdly witty “Roll Me Up” (and smoke me when I die), though in a manner inconsistent with the album’s overall sobriety. Similarly, a pair of western-swing chestnuts suddenly splash neon light into non-adjusted eyes, but these kinetic performances, boasting virtuoso musical turns, are undeniable highlights. 

While vocal cameos from such peers as Haggard and Kristofferson rattle with gravitas, some of the guest appearances, however worthy, threaten to distract—especially on standout songs that justify ownership by Willie alone. This is even the case at times on tracks featuring Lukas, whose voice is strikingly, almost comically, similar to his dad’s. Still, this is the album Willie wanted to make, never mind that it’s divided between classic moments, guest spots and a definite sense of passing the torch to the next Nelson generation.

It’d be good to hear more of Willie while he’s with us, but Heroes indicates that the future is in good hands.

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