Willie Nelson is Santa Claus; he is everywhere. He’s always on tour, yet manages to release at least two albums a year. He has recorded over 100 albums, and within those has collaborated with what often seems like everyone under the sun. His voice and guitar-playing style are by now easily recognized trademarks, yet the producers he works with often set them within substantially different contexts. Recent years have seen a reggae version (2005’s Countryman), a traditional-country look backwards (2006’s You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker), and an alt-country/rock-leaning album produced by Ryan Adams (2006’s Songbird). Each of these albums had its own feeling to it. Nelson’s talents as a singer, songwriter and guitar-player are rock-solid, but his choice of collaborators always makes a difference in the end. The quality differences within his massive discography have everything to do with the decisions made by Nelson and his collaborators, with what songs they choose, how they’re performed and how they’re recorded.
For Moment of Forever, Nelson partnered up with country superstar Kenny Chesney and his producer Buddy Cannon. The duo produced the album and recorded it in Nashville, the home base of the music industry that Nelson has had a back-and-forth relationship with over the years. Judging by the result, working with Chesney and Cannon was an inspired decision. They take a gentle approach, keeping the setting spare at nearly all times. The band for the album, including musicians who played on Chesney’s albums and Nelson stalwart Mickey Raphael on harmonica, is large in number. But with two exceptions—the near-funk of “Takin’ on Water” and the album-ending jam on Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody”—their approach to each song is restrained and sensitive. Even “The Bob Song”, written by Big Kenny of Big & Rich, is more understated than you’d expect for the material. On the outside it’s a huge, theatrical song, but Nelson sings it with gravity, highlighting the ambiguity of the song more than the circus of it. The serenity of Moment of Forever, even when the songs are embellished with horns and other instruments, is striking. What the mood achieves is to bring an exceptional level of focus on what is the essence of the album: Nelson’s voice and the songs he’s singing.
As a singer Nelson is as expressive here as he’s ever been. The sensitivity and suggestiveness of his singing is further aided by the clarity of the production. His equally expressive guitar playing also shines in moments throughout the album. In song selection, the album stresses the talents of Nashville’s hard-working professional songwriters, people like Dave Loggins and Paul Craft, and of maverick legends like Kris Kristofferson and Guy Clark. Chesney himself co-wrote one song, Cannon contributed a song, and Nelson wrote two of his own, including one with his sons Micah and Lukas. The first single is a song by Nelson’s Farm Aid partner Dave Matthews.
At times, Moment of Forever is relaxed enough to sound like a party. Nelson and Chesney duet on Clark’s “Worry B Gone”, a laidback tribute to drinking and smoking your troubles away, and sound like they’re having the time of their lives. Nelson’s own “You Don’t Think I’m Funny Anymore” is a fun, slightly naughty ramble of a song, playfully reprised in the album’s final seconds, amidst laughter at the lyric “Did you hear the one about the dirty whore / Oh I forgot…you don’t think I’m funny anymore”. But there’s a serious, almost spiritual side to the album as well. The spare setting helps make Nelson’s version of Randy Newman’s flood-tale, “Louisiana”, deeply resonant, echoing with the saga of Hurricane Katrina, of course, but also with tales of human tragedy throughout time. It’s a song that’s often been covered in the wake of Katrina, and Nelson’s version is possibly the best.
The more personal sense of tragedy that is the lifeblood of classic country music is another recurring theme to the album, starting with opener “Over You Again”, where gliding guitars give a morning-after-the-storm feeling of deceptive calm to Nelson and sons’ song about the multiple deaths relationships go through. “Takin’ on Water” is a portrait of a relationship as drowning, struggling. The denser approach of the music for that song fits. The drowning imagery eerily echoes “Louisiana”, joining personal and communal struggles together. The title track, Kristofferson’s “Moment of Forever”, gracefully ties personal heartbreak together with the album’s ultimate theme, the passing of time.
In small ways, nearly every song on the album ties into the greater human story of growing up, getting old, and dying. Dave Matthews’s “Gravedigger”, sung with true blues by Nelson, is an eerie song of death and memory. The Cannon-written “When I Was Young and Grandma Wasn’t Old” looks fondly backwards to youth, to a child sitting on Grandma’s front porch and learning from her. It’s a topic that should be well-worn, but the song casually reinvents it, painting a detailed portrait of a time long gone while suggesting larger issues of mortality. Nelson’s “Always Now” is a humble, sad love ballad with a philosophical outlook on time. “There never was a used to be / Everything is still with me / And it’s always now”, Nelson sings. “I’m Alive” and “Keep Me from Blowing Away” are a coin-flip of survival stories, one of triumph and one of desperation. Even “You Don’t Think I’m Funny Anymore” has a line about growing old that hits hard through its rollicking demeanor: “I used to fake a heart attack / And fall down on the floor / But even I don’t think that’s funny anymore”. Recklessness gets harder to pull off as the years pass by.
Moment of Forever is riddled with references to mortality, but it shouldn’t be mistaken as some grand statement on Nelson’s legacy. The overall tone of the album is absolute ease. The “moment of forever” image of time standing still is of a piece with Nelson singing “still is still moving to me”. Moment of Forever can be read as an extended meditation on the passing of time, but it’s also an example of Nelson leaving masterpieces scattered along his path while he just keeps on moving. For listeners, the album may prove to be a moment that sticks around forever, making an impact long after he’s gone, but in Nelson’s career it’s also just another passing moment, one among many.