Robert Christgau on the Late-Career Clarity of Willie Nelson and John Prine

The Dean of American Critics reviews Nelson's 'Last Man Standing' and Prine's 'The Tree of Forgiveness' as well as recent albums from Derek Smalls, Pops Staples, Elvin Bishop, and William Bell.
L: Scott Dudelson / Getty Images; R: Gary Miller / Getty Images

The self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics," Robert Christgau was one of the pioneers of music criticism as we know it. He was the music editor at the Village Voice for almost four decades where he created the trusted annual Pazz & Jop Poll. He was one of the first mainstream critics to write about hip-hop and the only one to review Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water with one word: "Melodic." On top of his columns, he has published six books, including his 2015 autobiography, Going Into the City . He currently teaches at New York University. Every week, we publish Expert Witness, his long-running critical column. To find out more about his career, read his welcome post ; for four decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website.


Willie Nelson: Last Man Standing (Legacy) As Nelson made room for his 85th birthday, he also beefed up his wee catalogue by adding 11 new tunes written with whippersnapping seventysomething Buddy Cannon. Their organizing concept is wisdom as opposed to age brags proper like "I don't want to be the last man standing / But wait a minute maybe I do." Sometimes the wisdom is rakish: "I gave you a ring then you gave me the finger," "He might not know me 'cause I'm low class / But tell him I'm the one with his head up his ass," "Bad breath is better than no breath at all." Sometimes it's paradoxical: "We were getting along just fine / Just me and me," "So many people, it sure is lonely." Sometimes it's just deep: "It's not something you get over / It's just something you get through." Always it sounds like it started with an idea that popped out of his mouth or sidled in from his subconscious, and who knows, maybe the weed helped—with an eye on retirement income, he's now marketing his own brand, Willie's Reserve. Over impeccably relaxed session work, that wisdom is delivered with a clarity and resonance that would inspire substance abusers half his age to quit drinking if they had his brains or soul. A

John Prine: The Tree of Forgiveness (Oh Boy) The 71(?)-year-old's second album of new originals since 1995 is bare-faced skimpy—10 songs lasting a shade over half an hour where 2005's pretty darn good Fair and Square almost filled a CD. Barely produced, too—quiet g-b-d touched by occasional piano riffs or organ colors, with a few numbers just strummed-and-sung in a voice I never thought I'd say was going because it was already gone when it got here. It daydreams some in the middle, too. Yet it's a keeper to be grateful for, and grateful he is. "Eternity is approaching fast," he notes in the "old folks home" singalong "Crazy Bone," and he's not always so jaunty about it. But in the end, he gets to heaven, where he forgives his enemies, re-enters show business, reconnects with every single aunt, and smokes "a cigarette that's nine miles long." A MINUS


William Bell: This Is Where I Live (Stax) Vocally, "Born Under a Bad Sign"'s cowriter is barely diminished as he pushes 80, and with help from John Leventhal his new songs are solid, but he was never a star because that voice was never a show stopper, which may explain its longevity ("More Rooms," "People Want to Go Home") ***

Elvin Bishop: Elvin Bishop's Big Fun Trio (Alligator) At 75, reformed National Merit Scholar and University of Chicago physics major keeps on rolling like it ain't no thing ("Keep On Rollin'," "100 Years of Blues," "That's What I'm Talkin' About") ***

Pops Staples: Don't Lose This (dBpm) Recorded a decade before he died in 2000 and now shored up with modest bass and drums by Jeff Tweedy and his boy, the patriarch's vocals and guitar recall very late John Hurt ("Somebody Was Watching," "Gotta Serve Somebody") **

Derek Smalls: Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Ageing) (Twanky/BMG) The aging Smalls lacks the chops to put his jokes across, leaving Steve Vai and Joe Satriani with funnier lines ("Gummin the Gash," "When Men Did Rock") *

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