Willie Nelson still makes records that are smart, funny, sexy, and heartbreaking.
What do you say about an 81-year-old man who had his first hit as a songwriter in the 1950s, writing half of a dozen of the greatest songs in the history of American popular music between 1958 and 1963, including "Hello Walls" for Faron Young, "Pretty Paper" for Roy Orbison, "Funny How Time Slips Away" for Billy Walker, and "Crazy" for Patsy Cline? These four songs, done before his first album as a solo performer, would have been enough to cement his reputation. But in the next six decades, he released 68 solo albums, ten live albums, 37 best of compilations, 27 collaborative albums, acted in 34 films, and did the soundtrack to two of them. Nelson has worked with basically everyone: old country stalwarts like Webb Peirce, Merle Haggard, and Dolly Parton; ancient pop crooners like Don Cherry; cutting a blues album with Wynton Marsalis and a reggae track with Snoop Dogg. He founded the alt-country movement, being one of the original "outlaws" with Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser, thus moving the focus from Nashville to Austin. He worked for a decade with the Highwaymen, a supergroup featuring Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, and again Waylon.
Nelson releases an album or more a year. This is not the ebb and flow, the comeback as elderly master (see recent work by Glen Campbell or the late Porter Wagoner). He has always released an album a year. Some of them are very good, and some of them are alright but not great, and very rarely a dud appears. I keep thinking about this new one in relationship to his fellow Highwaymen, but also Dolly. Looking through the list, Waylon burnt bright but quick, and his work was not as significant as Kristofferson, Cash, or Nelson. Kristofferson is a better actor and his '70s material is unequaled, and he had a moral bravery mixed with a reckless quality. Nelson was not singing about supporting the Sandinistas during most of the 1980s. Kristofferson continues to act, sings beautifully, and has become his secular saint for both New Nashville, and for the Keep Austin Weird movement. He tends to act more as well, with a clutch of performances since 1998’s A Solider's Daughter’s Never Cries, being smart, tender, and almost prophetic. Cash’s work near the end of this life was an exercise in believing his hype. Taking Rick Rubin’s belief that he was an American Jeremiah, he forgot all of the other qualities that marked his best work -- a sense of humour, a wisdom about what it meant to construct personae, an irony, and a pious quietude about his own scholastic Christianity.
Thinking about Dolly as well, because she has released as much work as anyone on this list, and she has a new album -- her film work is more uneven, but contains amazing performances. In the last decade, she released several very good traditional blue grass albums on the label Sugar Hill. Sadly, her newest one, with a voice that breaks on the low notes and cracks on the high note, is not one of them.
After 500 words of context, one thinks about Willie. I have not heard all of the albums, and not seen most of the films. I try to keep up with him, because his work was so consistent. I was worried that he was becoming a walking pot joke, and he kept releasing work that evaded the problems of other country singers of his generation. This work was fueled with a brilliant, mercurial energy. I was excited to see how he sung, even after 60 years of performing. He seemed nimble, joyful, occasionally mournful, and capable of work that was unlike anything that could be produced. He made dumb choices, but post tax problems, he made really smart choices too, and his batting average was world class.
I should write is world class, because this is a brilliant album. Not a brilliant album after almost 100 other albums, not a brilliant album for a man who has been working for twice as long as I have been alive, but the best country album of the year, and perhaps the best album this year. Willie's voice is flatter than it used to be, and has lost some of the melodic sweetness of the '70s and '80s. That is a mark of aging, and instead of mourning, or denial, he chose to work with an elderly voice. This is like Edward Said’s discussion of Late Work, when he tries to figure out what it means to have this disruptive, radical work near the end of people’s lives -- works that break expectation of a master; or a kind of summing up, a desire for a sensible end of life solution. Nelson manages to synthesize both methods here. He is like Alice Munro or Mavis Gallant, perfect short stores, which seem so normative, but if carefully attention they become heartbreaking in their lucid morals of human nature. But, he is also very funny, and often his humor rests on sex. A kind of louche, radical human comedy -- not a leering old man, but someone who knows that his libido and his brain will check out about 20 minutes post-mortem.
Often these story songs, move from the heavily localized, to the universal, with a slippery, salmon returning to mate, libidinal energy, but there are also works that read like the best sermons. Willie can sing about a lover, and admit to basic romance breakdowns -- holding the biggest heartache in town, losing his breath, being weak in the knees. But then he sings, “I try to speak / But the words don’t come / And I am scared to death”, and you can hear the death rattle in his yearning, and it becomes a collapsing -- of sexual desire, of fear of death, of settling into the silence that marks the delta where these two rivers flow. You can see this in “Send Me a Picture”, a song that begins with “Send me a picture when we were together / And we hold a picture / In the palms of our hands / When life had a future” and the picture seems so post-mortem. He talks about dreaming about a lover, about hoping never to dream about her again, and unsent letters. Meanwhile, the wheezing violin, underneath it all, is funereal. To hear this song, the lover might as well be on the far side of the Jordan, especially when midway through, he talks about “time passing away”.
But then he sings songs like "Wives and Girlfriends", a goatish anthem of mistress and wife, with a raucous western swing, and he calls himself a heathen, and Apollo meets Dionysus over Shiner Bock somewhere between Austin and Dallas. Or on the reverse of “Send Me a Picture”, a bluesy litany of all of the ways a woman has failed him. It's maybe a bit hypocritical, with the usual tension between the male satyr and the female slut, but considering last year’s collection of duets with women, I think that we can give credit for personae and forgive him. Sometimes they combine into works of thorny works of profound theological insight. "Git Go" with Jamey Johnson is a song that begins in the Garden, moves onto a quasi-libertarian argument about politician corrupting, a radically pacifist argument about capital and war (“rich kids go to college and poor kids go to die”), and ends up with a discussion of the crucifixion. With the plain simplicity of “Jesus hang on the cross for you and I”, Nelson turns around something as nihilist as Dylan’s Master’s of War, or Owens’s late poems about generals, into a reminder of the constant renewing nature of the holy spirit. Held in tension, the sacred and the profane entwine.
Some of that entwining is autobiographical. "Songwriters" is about all the pleasures that they can receive, some technical, and some less so (a song that features tour buses, kapoks, rum in Jamaica, and “true love but mostly one nighters”). It features one of the great Willie Nelson lines: “We write bridges, we cross them, and burn them / Teach lessons but don’t bother to learn them”. Don’t let this album fool you, Nelson is not only willing to spend his retirement years teaching us lessons, he is bothering to learn them.