The cover of The Great Divide shows Willie Nelson holding his guitar. The guitar is impossibly time-worn. Scars and carved signatures cover its surface, and there's even a raggedy hole through the wood where decades of strumming have taken their toll. The guitar may be even more battle-scarred than Nelson himself -- no small feat.
Nelson rightfully has a reputation as a survivor, and it's great to see the recent creative resurgence that's resulted in albums like Teatro and Milk Cow Blues. While not on the level of an indisputable classic like 1975's Red Headed Stranger, Nelson's recent albums have shown him comfortably wearing the mantle of an elder statesman who has nothing to prove. He exists outside of his genre, and holds more legitimacy now than he did even in his vaunted Outlaw days.
This is especially gratifying for any of us who remember the dark days when the Internal Revenue Service was tightening the screws on Nelson for tax evasion. All of his assets seized, Nelson released and sold the wryly titled (and surprisingly satisfying) The IRS Tapes: Who'll Buy My Memories? via television commercials. He finally paid off his debt, but for a while there, it wouldn't have seemed strange to see Nelson hawking for Taco Bell (oh wait, that was just last year . . . never mind). At any rate, his financial troubles behind him, Nelson's resumed his prolific recording pace -- averaging more than a record per year -- and slipping some of his best work into the mix.
In that light, The Great Divide is downright confusing. Perhaps spurred on by the runaway success of Santana's star-studded Supernatural album, Nelson collaborates with a handful of big name singers and songwriters. The results are, well, strange. It's perhaps telling that the only Nelson-penned song, "The Great Divide", is easily the disc's best cut. Lonely and windswept, flecked with border dust, it's a textbook Willie Nelson song that accepts the passage of time with bittersweet serenity. Placed along an odd track like Nelson's cover of "Time After Time" (yes, the Cyndi Lauper one), it shines even more brightly for its straightforward simplicity.
Many of the other songs sound like other people's ideas of what a Willie Nelson song sounds like. The Rob Thomas-penned "Maria (Shut Up and Kiss Me") starts the record off promisingly, but Nelson's duet with Lee Ann Womack, "Mendocino County Line", falters under the weight of syrupy strings. On "Last Stand in Open Country", Kid Rock does his best Bryan Adams impression (not a good thing in this context). Nelson's duet with Sheryl Crow and Brian McKnight are passable, but don't really evoke anything. The best collaboration is easily "You Remain", which finds Nelson and Bonnie Raitt sharing lines over a simple piano melody. Ever since Raitt made John Prine's aching "Angel from Montgomery" her own, she's demonstrated that she's tailor-made for meditations on exhaustion and regret.
All told, The Great Divide isn't a bad album. Melodies from the likes of Bernie Taupin (on two songs) and Rob Thomas's pop sensibilities definitely make for a record that's a pleasant listen. Through it all, Nelson sings in wonderfully understated tones, that weathered nasal tone of his breathing life into the empty spaces. Even when his guests might overplay their hands, Nelson is a rock of consistency. However, there's something not quite right about The Great Divide, an identity that's not completely Nelson's. It feels like Nelson's just along for the ride, letting other personalities dominate. Sure, he's there -- there's no mistaking that voice, that laid-back quality -- but it feels like Nelson's letting others do the work. That's regrettable for a talent that's worked so hard just to survive.