On Closer to the Bone, Kris Kristofferson avoids the production mishaps of 2006's This Old Road (the whole album sounded deliberately out of tune), though he works with the same team: producer Don Was (who also played bass), drummer Jim Keltner, Rami Jaffee on keyboards, and guitarist Stephen Bruton, who passed away shortly after finishing this album -- it is dedicated to his memory. Closer to the Bone's 11 songs are simply jaw-dropping for the most part: some pay tribute to friends; others give props to loss, grief, pleasure, and pain; and they all offer gratitude for the experiences. The sound of the record is close, intimate, and immediate but less shambolic than This Old Road -- but it doesn't sound falsely polished. It's an exceptionally intimate recording filled with songs that are always direct and sometimes uncomfortable. The melodies are as simple and classic as they've always been, but lyrically, the man is on a tear. On the opening title track, Kristofferson brings back an old Waylon Jennings-styled gospel shuffle, marked by Keltner's kick drum and brushed snare and illustrated by acoustic guitars, mandolin, and a harmonica. He sings about the experience of life while moving through one, and about how it's often the latter years that provide the richest experiences. And there's another voice that kicks in during the refrain: "Coming from the heartbeat/Nothing but the truth now/Everything is sweeter/Closer to the bone...." with backing vocals by Bruton. These two underscore in every line that, as one comes closer to whatever the eternal is, it's all encapsulated in today, and all experiences have their own beauty (and they do it without a hint of schmaltz or melancholy).
"From Here to Forever" is a love song, but an unconventional one, written for his children: "And darling if we're not together/There's one thing I want you to know/I'll love you from here to forever/And be there wherever you go...." His harmonica appears after the refrain and Jaffee's ghostly upright slides in as well. Kristofferson sounds like a young lion in "Holy Woman" and a lost, displaced warrior in love in the country waltz that is "Starlight and Stone." The tributes are brazen: there's one to Sinéad O'Connor, written as a paean to what she suffered in the aftermath of the incidents at Dylan's 30th anniversary concert and on Saturday Night Live. He claims in the lyric: "And maybe she's crazy/And maybe she ain't/But so was Picasso and so were the saints...." "Good Morning John," for Johnny Cash, was written for the Highwaymen but never recorded by them. There's also the heartbreaking "Hall of Angels," dedicated to the daughter the late Eddie Rabbitt lost. There are divorce songs ("Love Don't Live Here Anymore"); current, burning love and devotion songs ("Tell Me One More Time"); and a story-song in "Let the Walls Come Down," with its Civil War melody and back-porch instrumentation, imparting memories as revelations. "The Wonder" can only be described as a wisdom song, whose elementary power and beauty need to be heard, not written about. If Kristofferson never cuts another record, Closer to the Bone will have been a proud note to end his musical career on. That said, if it is any indication of the level of untapped inspiration that remains, the man still has plenty to say and listeners can hope he continues writing and singing this kind of truth. And there's one more thing this album asserts very plainly: that we will all miss you, Stephen Bruton; rest easy.