Kris Kristofferson’s ninth album was hated by critics but wears well decades later
Forty years after Kris Kristofferson released his critics-despised, chart-slumping album Shake Hands with the Devil, it remains an unremarkable addition to his songwriting cannon. Even so, I really enjoy listening to it.
I’m sure I would have had a different opinion if I’d been following Kristofferson’s music career at the time of its 1979 release. The 10-track album only had one new song to offer fans; the rest were reprisals of hits Kristofferson wrote for other artists or pieces from movies in which he’d starred. But removed from the context in which it was released, the album can serve as a greatest hits record of sorts—ironically without actually including any of Kristofferson’s greatest hits. In 2019 the album works best as a snapshot of Kristofferson the artist in the late 1970s, a man who remained dedicated to songwriting in spite of other professional obligations and the fact that he never had quite the same dedicated fanbase as his contemporaries in the country/gospel/folk melting pot the Nashville scene was at that time.
Is the album technically good? No, not really. At the time of its release, critics took Kristofferson to task for what they thought was laziness. He’d become a movie star while simultaneously churning out nine albums in as many years like a man on a bullet train eager to change lines at the next station. He was recycling old content, with only one of the 10 tracks on Shake Hands with the Devil a true original. These are all fair points—and Kristofferson did slow down once he’d fulfilled his 10-album contract with Monument Records in 1981, so perhaps that did have something to do with the quality of the content he was releasing.
From a creative standpoint, there’s not much to admire about the Colonel Tom Parker-style approach of slapping a new label onto repackaged content. Critics correctly called Kristofferson out for doing this, bemoaning the denigration of his music that many saw as directly related to his award-winning career as an actor. “He must have considered his recording career an afterthought to his more prominent career in the movies,” wrote William Ruhlmann for AllMusic. “That’s what’s suggested by this album, to which he’s given little thought.” Kristofferson has songwriting credits on all but two of the tracks, but some of the originals featured on this album were hits for other artists before he recorded them. Worse still in the eyes of the album’s strongest opponents, a couple of tracks—“Seadream” and “Michoacan”—were originally written for movies in which he’d appeared, further signaling that acting had become his dominant career.
Working alongside producer David Anderle, Kristofferson begins Shake Hands with the Devil with its title track, starting the album off strong but making it stumble quickly with “Prove it to You One More Time,” the one true original in the collection. With lyrics pleading for another chance, the song makes sense as a reaction to the marital trouble he was experiencing at the time with his then-wife Rita Coolidge, but the message and the bland riff that accompanies it aren’t memorable. Kristofferson then launches into “Whiskey, Whiskey,” a Tom Ghent original that Kristofferson enjoyed playing at his live shows throughout the 1970s. It’s one of the album’s most enjoyable tracks, its singalong chorus and organ undertones seemingly made for a small-town bar’s regulars to dust off on karaoke night. The album then jumps to the bouncy “Lucky in Love” before pumping the brakes for the lullaby-esque “Seadream.” Kristofferson does two more 180-degree turns in quick succession with the menacing “Killer Barracuda” and the soft “Come Sundown,” the latter of which Kristofferson had watched become a hit for another artist at the start of the decade.
AUDIO: “Killer Barracuda”
The album shifts between hot and cold from start to finish, with an equal number of ballads and fast-paced songs but not much balance in their presentation. It’s a confusing way to piece together a collection that’s meant to be absorbed as an album, but the flip-flopping isn’t as vexing when interpreted as a selection of works rather than a cohesive unit. But Kristofferson released Shake Hands with the Devil as an album, not as a collection of revamped material.
The evidence that the album’s release was more of a commercial move than an artistic one is strong. So why do I like it?
If I’d been writing music criticism in 1979, I would have been annoyed by the attempt to pass Shake Hands with the Devil off as a new album of original material. But four decades later, I find it functions better as a sampling from Kristofferson’s archives. Reflecting on the album now also reveals an honesty that likely would have surprised those who despised its blatant commercialism in 1979. The decision to record already written songs and add a couple of not-so-subtle winks to his film career is an honest snapshot of where Kristofferson was in that moment: he was rushed, he was under obligation to his record company and he was determined to keep his music career alive despite the demands acting placed on his time.
Before Shake Hands with the Devil, the last hit Kristofferson had was in 1973, when his country gospel song “Why Me” pushed his fourth solo album Jesus was a Capricorn to the top of the charts. The success came at a time when Kristofferson was finally earning recognition not just as a songwriter, but as a singer. He first gained traction in the music industry as the writer behind songs like “For the Good Times,” “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” all of which were made famous by other artists before Kristofferson had a record company’s backing to sing them himself. Desperate to push his career to the next level, Kristofferson famously landed a helicopter on Johnny Cash’s lawn in 1969, a wild move that earned him both Cash’s friendship and his endorsement for Kristofferson’s writing. By 1970, Kristofferson was on a roll in the studio, lending his own voice to the songs he’d painstakingly written for others to make famous and earning fans of his own.
Therein lies the irony of doubt cast upon Kristofferson’s dedication to his music: He worked so hard to make it. A literature student who graduated summa cum laude and went on to become an Oxford Rhodes Scholar, Kristofferson was interested in writing from a young age and identified songwriting as his preferred manner of expression in early adulthood. He rebuked the military aspirations his parents had for him and worked as a janitor in Music City while trying to find his in—hell, he landed a helicopter on Johnny Cash’s lawn. He wanted a career in music, and he was willing to do just about anything to get it.
In hindsight, Shake Hands with the Devil didn’t cause Kristofferson’s career any great harm. He went on to record several more studio albums and continued writing hits for other artists—and recorded one big one for himself as part of The Highwaymen. Shake Hands with the Devil was frustrating to many listeners at the time of its release, but it’s easy to shrug off those frustrations 40 years later and accept the album as a rushed release from a too-busy artist. It’s not Kristofferson’s best work, but the songs aren’t blasphemous either—they’re the best he could do at that moment in time. Coming from one of country’s most prolific songwriters, it’s not too shabby.
AUDIO: Shake Hands With The Devil (full album)