It often seems like there are only two ways for rock, country, and blues veterans to launch comebacks when they're senior citizens: confront mortality head on or surround yourself with superstar guests to help carry you through a half-hearted stroll through your back catalog, scattering a few new tunes along the way. At first glance, Jerry Lee Lewis' Last Man Standing seems to fall into both categories: the title suggests that Jerry Lee is in the mood to take a long look back, and certainly the very concept of the album -- pairing Lewis with 21 other stars for a succession of duets, often on material that his guests either wrote or made famous -- seems like a typical superstar duet record. But the Killer has never been predictable, and nowhere is that truer than it is here, where Jerry Lee treats Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, John Fogerty, Bruce Springsteen, Jimmy Page, and 16 other stars as he treated the Nashville Teens at the Star Club in 1964 -- as game amateurs who have to sprint to keep up with the master. This is the only guest-studded superstar album where all the guests bend to the will of the main act, who dominates the proceedings in every conceivable way. Jerry Lee doesn't just run the guests ragged; he turns their songs inside out, too -- and nowhere is that clearer than on the opening "Rock and Roll," the Led Zeppelin classic that is now stripped of its signature riff and sounds as if it were a lost gem dug out of the Sun vaults. Far from struggling with this, Jimmy Page embraces it, following the Killer as he runs off on his own course -- he turns into support, and the rest of other 20 guests follow suit (with the possible exception of Kid Rock, who sounds like the party guest who won't go home on an otherwise strong version of "Honky Tonk Woman").
The label might sell Last Man Standing on the backs of the duet partners -- after all, it's awful hard to drum up interest in a record by a 71-year-old man no matter how great he is, so you need a hook like superstars -- but the album by no stretch of the imagination belongs to them. This is completely Jerry Lee's show from the second that he calls out, "It's been a long time since I rock & rolled," at the beginning of the record -- and those are true words, since he hasn't rocked on record in a long, long time. Ten years ago he cut the Andy Paley-produced Young Blood, but that was a typically tasteful self-conscious comeback record; it was driven as much by the producer's conception of the artist as it was the artist himself. The opposite is true here, where the production is simple and transparent, never interfering with the performances; it has the welcome effect of making it sound like there is simply no way to tame Jerry Lee, even though he's now in his seventies. And that doesn't mean that this is merely a hard-rocking record, although "Rock and Roll," "Pink Cadillac," and "Travelin' Band" do indeed rock harder than anything he's done since the '70s -- so hard that they stand proudly next to his classic Sun records, even if they don't have the unbridled fire of those peerless sides. No, this album touches on everything that Jerry Lee has done musically through his career, as the furious rock & roll is balanced by pure hardcore country, piledriving boogie-woogie, rambling blues, old-timey folk songs, and, especially, reinterpretations of familiar songs that are so thoroughly reimagined they seem like they were written specifically for Jerry Lee. And he does this the same way he's always done it: by singing and playing the hell out of the songs. His phrasing remains original and unpredictable, twisting phrases in unexpected ways -- and, yes, throwing his name into the mix frequently, too -- and his piano is equally vigorous and vital. This is a record that stays true to his music, and in doing so, it's not so much a comeback as it is a summation: a final testament from a true American original, one that explains exactly why he's important. But that makes Last Man Standing sound too serious, as if it were one of those self-consciously morbid Johnny Cash records -- no, this is a record that celebrates life, both in its joys and sorrows, and it's hard not to see it as nothing short of inspiring.