There is a great world of music out there that often goes unreleased. Hence collectors often go scrounging and, from personal experience, wind up paying top dollar for unauthorized recordings (AKA bootlegs) that sound as if they were taped in the county adjacent to the county where the actual concert was held. Sometimes the artist wanted these releases buried—if not burned—while in other cases label conflict postponed or delayed the album. Willie Nelson, one of the legends of modern music (not just country), decided that he was going to work on an album of reggae songs back in 1996. Over the years the musician’s output and touring resulted in this project being put on the back burner and then under the stove. But Nelson finally got around to putting the finishing touches on this record. And while his voice is still as strong and as recognizable as ever, Nelson’s “lost record” is perhaps one that could have been the stuff that makes for great storytelling by acclaimed journalists. When it’s put out for the public, though, it can be rather unforgiving. And as much as I love Nelson, this one just seems way too produced, having no organic quality to it.
Nelson tries to set things right with “Do You Mind Too Much If I Don’t Understand”, which he wrote himself. The instrumentation, along with the sound of waves or crashing, cascading water gives the impression that he’s vying to impress Jimmy Buffett. The arrangement itself is rather ordinary, too polished and up-tempo to come off as truly authentic—almost as if the song itself isn’t memorable, something that Nelson has rarely been accused of with his rich catalogue. When the record slows down, it seems like Nelson isn’t out of his realm entirely, especially on the deliberate but surprisingly good “How Long Is Forever”. Whether it’s the fact the song relies so much on his voice that the arrangement is buried, or that the pedal steel touches gives it a far more traditional reggae-cum-country (if that’s traditional at all) flavor, the track works better. The song and its lyrics are the selling point, so Nelson could be doing this with a set of spoons and a wooden triangle and still seal the deal. That mix of singing and speaking is Nelson’s strong suit and he rides it from the onset of this effort, complete with the strumming of his signature guitar that looks like it was made by Les Paul’s great-great-great grandfather.
Perhaps the only country singer of Nelson’s era that could have pulled off this record is Charley Pride, whose timbre is a bit deeper and perhaps better suited for the tone of these songs. “I’m a Worried Man”, a cover of a Johnny and June Carter Cash song, features Toots Hibbert (he of the Maytals fame) on an ordinary duet. The tune could take off but the chorus falls flat. This is disappointing given how Nelson and Hibbert seem to work well together. If things were stripped down, as much as they can be on a reggae song, it would be a vast improvement. However, it sounds like Nelson and Hibbert are singing with one eye on the other musicians and the other on themselves as if to ask “What the hell is going on here?” “The Harder They Come” is simply gorgeous, though, and is worth some of the early miscues, with Nelson nailing the Jimmy Cliff song with a simplicity that is perhaps the album’s highlight. It’s the least reggae-sounding song here and almost comes off as gospel-leaning.
The problem with the record though can be shown in “Something To Think About”. Here Nelson has the plan and delivers, but the production saturates and dampens this effort with the backbeat and pedal steel almost fighting for the lead role. And the rock solid foundation of Nelson singing one of his classics—“Darkness on the Face of the Earth”—is definitely placed on shaky ground here with the choice of music that accompanies it. The narrative of the song doesn’t really make you envision sandy beaches and rum. Yet this pales compared to the nadir that is “I’ve Just Destroyed The World” which could be re-titled “I’ve Just Destroyed The Song Fans Love So Well”. While it’s not tampered with so much that fans of Nelson will start screaming Judas at him anytime soon, it just leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth and scrambling for his older work, so brilliantly compiled on 2003’s Crazy: The Demo Sessions.
Nelson ends the album with the same mish-mash of mash-ups of styles: his longtime country roots trying to meld into a reggae feel. You can’t criticize him for being experimental, or for even trying. But it’s a record that, while having some truly shining moments, is one whose stature would’ve grown by simply staying unreleased.