Prime Cuts: Old Timer, A Woman's Love, Butterfly
Overall Grade: 4/5
With "God's Problem Child," Willie Nelson bares his wrinkled soul to mortality. Not only do many of these songs deal with issues regarding death, old age, regrets, and nostalgia, but there's an air of spirituality that comes from a man who is at the threshold between this life and the next. This preoccupation with the transient nature of life shouldn't come as a surprise to us, after all, Nelson is already 84 years old. But there's more: the album's opening cut "Little House on the Hill" was co-written by producer Buddy Cannon's 92 year-old mother, Lyndel Rhodes. And the title cut "God's Problem Child" was Leon Russell's final co-composition before he himself kicked the bucket.
In tenure with the theme and direction of the record, Nelson takes a weathered and weary approach. With songs entirely bordering on the slow and mid-tempo side, he relies on the usual Americana additives of softly strummed acoustic guitars, weeping pedal steel, and brushed percussion. Waxing nostalgia from the get-go, album opener "Little House on the Hill" is one of the brighter moments on the record. Aided by the song's spirited use of harmonica and a delightful call and response between Nelson and a spry vocal ensemble, Nelson sounds rejuvenated.
"Old Timer" is easily one of Nelson's better ballads written by Lonnie Fritz and Lenny LeBlanc. Christian music fans will remember LeBlanc for being the writer of worship staples such as "Above All" and "We Bow Down." Unlike many current country singers who barely scratch the surface of the emotional depths of a love song, Nelson with "A Woman's Love" (co-written by Mike Reid) showcases how a veteran can mine the song's lyrics for its sobering emotional nuances. Age and his lifelong tribulations give Nelson an inherent believability with "It Gets Easier," a song overflowing with wisdom about how trials are not forever.
Written by Jamey Johnson and Tony Joe White, the title cut "God's Problem Child" begins on a good premise, but it is let down by the song's far too nebulous song structure. The same can be said about some of the other songs like "True Love" and the Merle Haggard tribute "He Won't be Ever Gone." Perhaps its lethargy, there's not much effort place into making the songs jump out with greater hooks. Much better is the mid-tempo "I Made a Mistake." A song sung as a prayer to God: "I Made a Mistake" is to be applauded for Nelson's vulnerability and candour towards his past and his relationship with the Almighty. "Butterfly" brings us back to Nelson's heydays set to an affecting jazz/waltzy pace.
Despite calling himself "God's Problem Child," there is a soothing vibe of measured humility, wisdom, and reflection on this record. Mortality has a way of bringing out an alluring beauty and affection from this "problem child." Coming from an old soul who has had been shaped and tattered by life, this album is worth ruminating over.