Thursday, October 26, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1066: Kris Kristofferson

After a couple of new (to me) albums in a row I was hankering for a record that had been in my collection for a while, and the Dice Gods did not disappoint, bringing me an album I’ve known virtually my entire life.

Disc 1066 is…The Silver Tongued Devil and I
Artist: Kris Kristofferson

Year of Release: 1971

What’s up with the Cover? A very young Kris Kristofferson (this is many years before he ever hunted vampires) poses in the traditional country style; thumbs hooked over a giant belt buckle.

How I Came To Know It: My mom had this record on vinyl and I grew up with it. I got this copy years ago at Lyle’s Place at a bargain price.

How It Stacks Up:  I have eight Kris Kristofferson albums, and “Silver Tongued Devil…” is the best. I know I put his self-titled debut first way back at Disc 39 but “Silver Tongued Devil” wins by doing everything “Kristofferson” does, but in two less songs.

Ratings: 4 stars

I’ve been watching Ken Burns’ heart-rending documentary series on the Vietnam War, so it’s fitting I’m reviewing an album that not only came out during Vietnam, but by an artist that has spent a career honouring the wounded warriors that fought there.

1971 was a year of uncertainty and revolution in the United States, and Kristofferson’s outlaw country, give-no-damns approach broadcasts that experience loud and clear across the decades since it was released.

Kristofferson doesn’t have a huge range as a vocalist, but his crushed-gravel tone and raw, honest delivery more than makes up for that. When Kristofferson describes a character like junkie friend “Billy Dee” you not only see him in your mind’s eye, your heart aches for him as he overdoses and dies. Whether Billy Dee was a real man, or just an invention of Kristofferson’s art doesn’t matter; in that moment, he’s real to you.

When Kristofferson sings “Good Christian Soldier” you feel like you’re sitting there in the foxhole with that “son of an Okie preacher” hoping the Viet Cong would pass them by and no one would die. It is so resonant, for years I was convinced Kristofferson served in Vietnam, but a Google search revealed that while he was an army helicopter pilot who volunteered to go, he was assigned a military teaching job instead. Kristofferson quit and became a songwriter.

While not as famous as some anti-war songs, “Good Christian Soldier” cuts close to the bone on what the experience must’ve been like:

“'Cause it's hard to be a Christian soldier, when you tote a gun
And it hurts to have to watch a grown man cry
But we're, playin' cards, writin' home, an' havin' lots of fun
Tellin' jokes and learnin' how to die.”

I knew this album very young, and some of the nuance of Kristofferson’s songwriting escaped me. The title track is about a man fighting his baser nature, seducing a woman at a bar even as part of him wants to warn her away:

“I took myself down, to the Tally Ho Tavern
To buy me a bottle of beer
And I sat me down by a tender young maiden
Whose eyes were as dark as her hair

“And as I was searching from bottle to bottle
For somethin' unfoolish to say
That silver tongued devil just slipped from the shadows
And smilingly stole her away”

As a kid I thought an actual devil had sat down with Kristofferson and stole away his girl. I used to imagine his demonic powers of persuasion, and Kristofferson as some kind of noble hero who couldn’t quite rescue her. Later in life, you realize the devil’s inside, but when you’re 5 or 6 the world is delightfully literal.

The record is at its best when Kristofferson sings of lost love, and the classic “Loving Her Was Easier” is one of the great lovelorn songs of modern music, dripping with beautiful imagery from its opening lines:

“I have seen the morning burning golden on the mountain in the sky
Aching with the feeling of the freedom of an eagle when she flies.”

Loving is simple and easy when you find the right one, and while the memory is obviously a good one, the song is tinged with regret, with the use of the past tense weighing heavily on every image. It’s a love that’s over. The song is underscored with flourishes of violin and flute that come close to schmaltz, but never quite cross over. This is a song for hopeless romantics everywhere.

Many of the songs on the album have key changes that along with the string create an orchestral feel, and make your emotions swell mid-way through. On some tracks he employs Mexican trumpet to good effect as well. Kristofferson is a gifted songwriter who knows how to keep your ear keen musically while he fills your head with rich imagery.

A lot of people will tell you that they prefer a Kristofferson song covered by someone else; his gravelly honesty is just too much truth, and too little tune. I disagree. There just isn’t anyone else I’d rather have sing these lines from “The Pilgrim-Chapter 33”:

“He's a poet, an' he's a picker, he's a prophet, an' he's a pusher
He's a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he's stoned
He's a walkin' contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction
Takin' ev'ry wrong direction on his lonely way back home.”

A bunch of nouns and some contradictions, and some dropped ‘g’s and Kristofferson sets the image of his character solid and clear in your mind. He’s a natural storyteller and never better at drawing you into his narratives than on “Silver Tongued Devil...” It is a classic album that is often overlooked.

Best tracks: The Silver Tongued Devil and I, Billy Dee, Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again), When I Loved Her, The Pilgrim-Chapter 33

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