It Always Will Be
As his unmistakable voice ponders loss, isolation and past mistakes over gentle, spare acoustic guitar chords, Willie Nelson sets the tone for his latest album from the start. Shipwrecked on a desert island of heartbreak on the title track, the first of only three originals on the record, he rises above despair by looking into the face of his "favorite girl" to feel her redemptive love. The minimal refrain, "It always will be," allows him to come in off the beat and prolong the word "always," even as we hear the tinges of melancholy and remorse that surround this simple assertion of faith.
Except for the album's couple of comic tunes and one blue-collar saga ("Tired"), Nelson, now 70, does what he's always done best: songs about fragile love and its grip on humanity, delivering his message with an elegiac tone that's momentarily countered by reaching into a well of hope as dry as the dusty landscapes of West Texas.
Indeed, the final song of the album, "Texas," as much as it seems to be about longing for home, could never be the state's anthem and instead suggests the depths of personal loss, as if a scapegrace is hiding behind its patriotic theme. The haunting tremolos and whining pedal steel sounds, typical of the subtle guitar textures on the album, take on the eerie feel of an exile's song, only partially checked by a mariachi waltz melody that grinds to a halt with a clipped final chorus line, "in TEHX-us."
As for Willie's "favorite girls," there's a minor theme of collaboration with women singer-songwriters who've felt his influence. These three duets have mixed results, but all show the singer giving his blessings to his daughters, both literal and figurative. Oddly enough, "Be That As It May," the song written by his natural daughter Paula Nelson, is the least natural pairing of the three. Her twangy voice and nasal keening might have been a good match for her father's near-yodeling intro notes on "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" over 30 years ago. But his voice has taken on a textured burnish after many years, and her ululating manner just isn't a good fit, even on a song about a time-bombed domestic relationship that's pure Willie material.
Norah Jones, on the other hand, has a smoky sense of phrasing and a vocal maturity that make her a legitimate heir of Nelson's style. The two sing together well on "Dreams Come True," a song written by J.C. Hopkins, who also contributed a number to Jones' debut album Come Away With Me. Though this ballad doesn't have much lyrical development, it aims for the melodic sophistication of a Cole Porter tune or a showstopper in a classic musical comedy. Jones' languorous Texan drawl and breathy delivery are interwoven with Nelson's sly, sweet crooning. Urbane, piano-driven and evoking a nightclub pledge of conjugal bliss, the song is in some ways out of place on this album. On the other hand, it's true to Willie's way of handling lyrics that were written only a few years ago and making them sound as if they've been around forever. He still can invigorate a classic-style song with much the same empathetic reading he gave "Stardust" some 25 years ago.
The highlight of his duets, though, is Lucinda Williams' "Over Time," which pairs Nelson with his most sympathetic singing partner and material. A bittersweet scenario alternates between the voices of two lovers who've been trying to forget each other but remember too well what they've wanted to let go of. "Your crooked teeth," he sings, after recalling her blue eyes and black eyelashes. "The trouble you get in, in your clumsy way," she retorts, with just the right mixture of affection and aggression. Over raindrop-like plucking and regretful steel fills, Williams delivers her lines with sorrow and longing, forgiveness and fatigue, warbling with dampened spirits. Nelson is most in his element when he replies with the same tone of anti-romantic romanticism, meting out incriminating phrases as he drops and picks up the pieces of this broken bond.
Not surprisingly, the best track is a certified classic, a song Nelson revisits more than 40 years after he first recorded it. Written by Jimmy Day and Rusty Adams, "The Way You See Me" gets a seasoned rendition here, and its plain lyrics are all the better when the singing is understated. Starting off with a bit of barroom piano and fading steel guitar, its opening image of birds migrating south to freedom hints at the backstory of an emotionally draining breakup that's fresh in memory. The lyrics are addressed to a sympathetic companion and mutual friend, possibly a man who respects the speaker's need to appear stoic or a woman who understands his vulnerability and could still be a link between him and his ex.
"Don't tell my darlin' that you saw me / Lookin' the way you see me," Willie asks this listening friend. His delivery runs the gamut of subtle after-the-fire emotions, from being in awe of the free birds, to wishing he could still share his feelings with the woman he loved, to being hit with the realization that he can't mask his anguish or control the way his story will be heard. This isn't a macho assertion of anger or independence, as a younger man might have sung the lyrics, but rather a frail voice caught in the irony of begging his friend to "Tell her I'm happy alone." Mickey Raphael's harmonica parts, which can moan with the depth of a bandoneon, underscore the pathos of such lines.
Nelson's album offers many such graces, riding on a rugged voice that fades with the dying embers or basks in their glow and never completely abandons the hope of renewal. It doesn't have the ambitions of his great "comeback" albums of the '90s, Teatro and Spirit, and one certainly might wish for another such project that is thematically linked by his songwriting. Nevertheless, it remains true to the quiet vocal authority, sparse, evocative instrumentation, and depth of honest, unsentimental material that his recordings of the past decade have settled upon.
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Thanks so much for the fun read! Have a great summer.
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