Study Guide

Kris Kristofferson

Kris Kristofferson Essay - Critical Essays

Kristofferson, Kris

Introduction

Kris Kristofferson 1936–

American songwriter and actor.

Kristofferson is credited with broadening the range of country music in the early 1970s. In contrast to the simple emotions expressed in many country songs, Kristofferson's sensitive, autobiographical lyrics touch "the more tender aspects of the human condition," according to Laura Cunningham. Kristofferson's songs have a literary quality rare in country music, for he utilizes uncommon metaphors and unique rhyme schemes in his bittersweet portrayals of love and life. The emotional depth of his songwriting has gained Kristofferson a following in the pop music world as well.

Kristofferson became successful as a songwriter before he began his recording career. His first album, Kristofferson (1970), featured several songs recorded previously by other artists. Although many critics feel that his writing had already peaked by the time this album was released, Kristofferson won the Country Music Association's Song of the Year award in 1970 for "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down."

Spooky Lady's Sideshow (1974) is considered by some critics to be Kristofferson's most ambitious album. The songs examine the themes of personal and social alienation and reveal a strain of irony that some believe is deliberate self-parody. Although he still records albums and performs concerts, Kristofferson has also pursued an acting career that has overshadowed many of his recent songwriting efforts.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 104.)

Ray Rezos

It's been a good long while since an old folkie like Kris Kristofferson has come along. Kristofferson embodies the folksinger's tradition. He sings simple songs that speak eloquently of experiences—spending a night in a small-town jailhouse, hitching a ride to New Orleans, paying a call on an old-time used-to-be. He is always totally believable; you know Kris has paid some dues….

Kristofferson is a superb album. Kris shows plenty of versatility—from a rousing gospel chant, "Blame It on the Stones" …, to tender mellow things like "Casey's Last Ride" and "For the Good Times," to rockin' country stuff like "Best of All Possible Worlds." His lyrics are always right; he can be bitter, cynical when he has to be, then turn around and be poetically pretty without being saccharine….

As a songwriter, [Kristofferson] is both versatile and original. He is going to go a long way, and soon.

Ray Rezos, in his review of "Kristofferson," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1970; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 70, November 12, 1970, p. 38.

Noel Coppage

[Kristofferson's] songs deal with how it is to feel inadequate. The world is a mess, all right, he concludes, but then so am I. The hero winds up in jail only partly because of his life style and politics—there also was the matter of his being roaring drunk and raising hell. The South, being so conservative, has always been a tough place for rebels, and Kristofferson has been able to construct a stable of Southern characters—mostly shades of himself—to personify actions and reactions that anyone anywhere can identify. Hank Williams, his boyhood hero, knew what it was like to be poor and scrambling in the South (which is pretty much like what it's like anywhere else, only more so) and it got into his songs, too. Like Williams, Kristofferson looks at it with a mixture of sympathy, objectivity, and hope….

[Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down on "Kristofferson"] is his ultimate statement to date about loneliness, and Kris has made a lot of statements about loneliness. The lament for lost or never-had companions or loves dogs his songs with the quiet efficiency of a small-town bookkeeper. Many songs also mention being broke and hung over….

Kristofferson tosses out a better-than-average adage occasionally…. But his lyrics don't have the gloss of self-conscious surrealism that so many other songwriters picked up by listening to Bob Dylan. Kristofferson's lyrics are straightforward and, in their way, generally graceful. Compare his songs with those of writers ten years his junior, those who are trying to say the same things, and you can see how experience—and even an Oxford education—can be helpful.

Kristofferson says he wants to affect people emotionally rather than intellectually—but any songwriter interested in survival wants to do that. The thing is that in order to write well for the viscera, one must have his own cerebrum in order, otherwise he won't know how thick to pour it on. Kristofferson, in this album, poured it on just about right.

Noel Coppage, "The Sound of Kristofferson," in Stereo Review (copyright © 1971 by Ziff-Davis Publishing Company), Vol. 26, No. 4, April, 1971, p. 61.

Alec Dubro

[Kristofferson is] a romantic, and unashamedly so. Not too different from the Kerouac vision of the Fifties, with a reverence for the "real" America and an unfortunate case of city sophistication. It's a feeling most of us have felt, but Kristofferson has pulled it off in his life and made some really fine music in the process.

Kristofferson's biggest hit in rock circles has been "Me and Bobby McGee," an undiluted piece of romance, and to some extent, an epitome of a Kristofferson ballad. On [The Silver Tongued Devil and I] there is a song that is even more sentimental, to some people cloyingly so, but which I think is just a real pretty country song. "Jody and the Kid" is that, a neat kind of circle song. It begins with a little girl following Jody around, with folks saying "Looky yonder … there goes Jody and the kid." In the second verse she grows up and they get hitched. And it ends with another little girl, their daughter, following Jody down to the levee, just like her mama did.

"Jody and the Kid" is a perfect example of one of Kristofferson's contradictions, and of his ability to charm. It's the contrast between the crying-sweet lyrics and Kris' gravelly-deep macho voice, which is just arresting….

It is as lyricist that Kristofferson excels. His melodies are good, but without his poetry they wouldn't be much. In another "Bobby McGee" type of song, "When I Loved Her," Kris sings some...

(The entire section is 498 words.)

Ben Gerson

[Kristofferson is best] known as a lyricist, and so any consideration of his latest album, Border Lord …, ought to begin there. At regular intervals, I was confronted with lines ranging from [confusion to inanity to hyperbole to the kind of pseudo-poeticizing which should have gone out with Bob Lind and the Electric Prunes]….

Kris' celebrations of machismo are his most patently stupid entries. When [Mick] Jagger works with the form, it's endearing because basically Jagger's assertiveness is compensating for failure. With Kris, it's sheer one-dimensional braggodocio….

"Smokey," "Border Lord" … and "Gettin' By High and Strange" … are the "love" songs least ambiguous in their intent. But when Kris attempts to shade in the emotional side of his affairs, he really steps in it. In "Little Girl Lost," for example, the stanzas alternate between objective consideration of his "little girl," bitterness at the way he was treated by her, and a melting forgiveness addressed to a third party who is about to "take her." The transitions are abrupt and irrational.

Kris is equally indigestible when he waxes reflective…. On "Burden of Freedom," Kris plays his namesake, Christ … but proves his obtuseness and egocentricity in the last stanza when he "cleverly" turns the tables…. Asking for forgiveness of your enemies is indeed Christ-like; to ask for forgiveness of your own transgressions,...

(The entire section is 514 words.)

Chet Flippo

[Jesus Was A Capricorn] is a satisfying album, though in a more mellow, quiet way than would have been expected. Most conspicuous by its absence is [Kristofferson's] earlier despair, although the other themes that have sustained him appear less and in muted forms.

The obvious comparisons are to such albums as [Bob Dylan's] John Wesley Harding and [Leon Russell's] Carney. Works that mark a certain maturity as well as signifying a breathing spell; a time for the artist to answer critics, to tend to loose ends, and to try out one or two new things. In short, a request that he be at last judged on realistic terms. In that light, he's mostly successful.

The critics get a gentle blast in the title cut, the message of which is "everybody's gotta have somebody to look down on."…

There is little of the old Kristofferson here: only one road song ("Out of Mind, Out of Sight") and the only thing that would qualify as an outlaw song ("Jesse Younger") is strangely substanceless. The varying love songs—"It Sure Was (Love)," "Enough for You," and "Give It Time to Be Tender"—are quiescent and almost passive. It's as if they were dealing with emotions at arm's length, on a second-hand basis…. They also suggest that he is a man who isn't a hungry writer any more and is no longer hurting and is now accepting life on different terms.

Chet Flippo, in his review of "Jesus Was a Capricorn" (reprinted by permission of the author), in Rolling Stone, Issue 125, January 4, 1973, p. 66.

Stephen Holden

[John] Prine and Kristofferson have much in common: naturalistic singing styles that owe a lot to the early Dylan and to Johnny Cash, respectively, and lyric themes that evoke rural and/or working-class sensibilities….

Unlike Prine, Kris Kristofferson seldom plays the role of social commentator. He came into prominence as the author of "Me and Bobby McGee." … With its memorable catch phrase, "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose," this great song generated expectations that Kristofferson has not lived up to. Jesus Was a Capricorn is his fourth and weakest album.

Prior to Jesus, Kristofferson's self-made image was that of a hard-drinking, hard-loving...

(The entire section is 285 words.)

Colin Irwin

This album ["Spooky Lady's Sideshow"] is one of depressing dullness. I always thought Leonard Cohen took the prize for monotonous vocals and James Taylor for pretentious word games, but K.K. reaches a new low in dismal music. He established his reputation basically on one good song ("Me And Bobbie McGee") and apart from looking pretty and turning on house-wives with his gruff voice, he's never done anything of comparable quality. A hip Johnny Cash, he wallows in romanticism and highbrow philosophy which is at best plain uninteresting and at worst pretentious and patronising. He uses clever phrases and grand words, but doesn't come out of it at all convincing while the treatment of the songs follows a predictable...

(The entire section is 258 words.)

Ellen Wolff

Imagine a few friendly drunks, arms linked to bolster their balance while they sway to the downbeat songs of a rasping crooner singing into his beer. The soundtrack for this scenario could easily be Kris Kristofferson's Spooky Lady's Sideshow, the perfect mood music for malt liquor melancholics. Despite the provocative promise of the peepshow title, the songs exhibited here offer a bevy of down and outers like he's shown us before.

Sideshow begins on a resigned note, with "Same Old Song," a mellow motel blues that's been hanging around Kris' repertoire for a while. It bears his droll, understated trademark, summarizing success as "just a few more friends that you'll be losing when you...

(The entire section is 387 words.)

Peter Reilly

[Kristofferson] uses a personalized c-&-w form as his mode, but the brains and wit apparent in his songs are as far removed from Nashville as Balliol. Star Spangled Bummer (Whores Die Hard) is probably the most ambitious track [on "Spooky Lady's Sideshow"]; an allegory about the current American predicament, it is unsuccessful because of Kristofferson's habit of burying meaning in a welter of symbols and images so complex that it would take a cryptographer to figure them out—and all this in that hokey down-home accent yet! Much to be preferred are his performances of such material as I May Smoke Too Much, the story of a Mr. Clean who slowly realizes that the smokers and drinkers and Casanovas are...

(The entire section is 200 words.)

DAVID McGEE

It's been a long time since a Kristofferson album didn't sound like an afterthought to his movie career and Who's to Bless and Who's to Blame is no exception…. His decline as a song-writer is shocking only in its rapidity; all of those "shadows" lurking in and around his early compositions were tip-offs that the decline was inevitable. His most fully realized work, The Silver-Tongued Devil and I, came in 1971 and subsequent albums have only given rise to the question of whether he'll ever be able to pull himself up again. This album leaves the question unanswered.

Kristofferson isn't even rewriting his best songs anymore; he's just falling flat on his face trying to write one song...

(The entire section is 152 words.)

Jon Pareles

Ah, the truth is revealed. These past few years, I, deceived like so many others, believed Kristofferson was a good-turning-mediocre songwriter who hated critics for reasons you'd expect. They'd keep pointing out his sloppy lyrics …, his repeated tunes, his Dylan cops …, his homogenized production. They'd even neglect decent songs like "The Golden Idol" in the rush to proclaim his wasted potential. Surreal Thing's long-rumored revenge number, "Eddie The Eunuch," dedicated to critics, tries to reinforce this mistaken impression with sexual cheap-shots and downright lies….

The fact is that Kristofferson is actually jealous because he longs to join the critical ranks. He makes his...

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Richard Hogan

Easter Island's boxing imagery suits Kris offerson better than the repetitious exercises in bedside manner which filled his previous seven solo discs. Fans began to harbor serious doubts about who would raise the kids if Kris' squaw wised up to all the furtive trysts her husband's songs boasted. But new songs such as "Risky Bizness" and "The Fighter," which liken an entertainer's career to a boxer's, aren't so self-destructive as "The Stranger" and reflect Kristofferson's peculiar fascination with winning in public….

[Though "The Fighter"] is executed in the standard, poky Kristofferson/Prine style that makes much of their output intolerable, "Easter Island" has enough rock strength to lift...

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Robin Grayden

Kristofferson's got a fixation about the devil—he called a previous album "The Silver Tongued Devil And I"—and he could be Old Nick himself for all I care, as long as he produces albums like this…. [While "Shake Hands With The Devil"] may not carry such masterpieces as "Sunday Morning Coming Down" or "Casey's Last Ride", for example, the songs linger in the memory; they're "sleepers" rather than instant hits….

The title track is a powerful rocker about a lustful lover…. Love comes in different guises, and Kristofferson exploits them with a variety of approaches—"Killer Barracuda" starts as an allegory; he's the predator in search of female prey. Then in "Whiskey, Whiskey" he's a failed...

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Noel Coppage

Kris Kristofferson, like most of us, writes better when something's bothering him; unfortunately, he doesn't sing any better. ["To the Bone"], apparently designed to work off some of the feelings attending his split with Rita Coolidge (at least it will be taken that way), has some poignant and well-crafted songs in it, but Kris' vocals are so limited in range and emotional expressiveness that the listener has to do a lot of imaginative reconstruction to appreciate them. Daddy's Song …, a sort of Jody and the Kid revisited, walks a fine line between pathos and bathos, alternating between the guilt and agony a father feels when he can't live with his child and a "rational" viewpoint…. Something...

(The entire section is 259 words.)