There seem to be two preferred options for artists of a certain vintage. Either give Rick Rubin a call or rope in as many superstar chums as you can muster.
The latter worked particularly well on Jerry Lee’s last effort – 2006’s Last Man Standing – for which he was joined by Mick, Keef, Eric, Ringo, Rod, Bruce, Merle and more. It landed rock’s original wildcat a first hit album in 20 years and shifted over half a million worldwide.
Mean Old Man is, in effect, Last Man Standing II, Lewis once again buddying up with most of the above, plus Shelby Lynne, Gillian Welch and Sheryl Crow. But here’s where the Killer deviates from the norm. Never mind the calibre or status of said celebs, there’s no doubt who’s leading the charge here. This is very much Jerry Lee’s album, raking the piano keys with relish and bossing lead vocals throughout. To the extent that sometimes, as on the pounding Roll Over Beethoven, you wonder why Ringo bothered setting the alarm at all.
A couple of these tunes – Bad Moon Rising (with John Fogerty) and You Are My Sunshine (Sheryl Crow) – seem little more than perfunctory, but the rest fight their corner in spirited style. Kris Kristofferson’s title track is a tetchy Southern swamper with Ronnie Wood, while Slash momentarily steals Lewis’ thunder by gashing out a terrific solo on Rockin’ My Life Away. And it takes a certain wilfulness, not to mention self-assurance, to keep Jagger in the shade on his own Dead Flowers.
If anything though, it’s the slower songs that punch hardest. There’s something both timeless and transient about Lewis and Merle Haggard chewing the country cud on Swinging Doors, two old stagers propping up the bar ’til closing time, backed up by a James Burton guitar lick and heaps of pedal steel. It’s the same with Please Release Me, Jerry Lee’s vulnerable tones shadowed by the harmonies of Gillian Welch and some mournful guitar.
Wistful isn’t a term you’d readily associate with Lewis, a man for whom the word defiance has often been worn as a personal badge of honour, but his version of Kristofferson’s Sunday Morning Coming Down is just that. And all the more poignant for it. Like this very fine record itself, he’s full of surprises.