These days, people make too much of Willie Nelson’s age and choice of a recreational drug, but there’s just no getting around it. Nelson’s new album, A Beautiful Time, is further proof that Willie Nelson is the 89-year-old weed-smoking Zen master that this world needs. A Beautiful Time continues Nelson’s fruitful collaboration with songwriter/producer Buddy Cannon. Cannon and Nelson have worked together closely for more than ten years, resulting in a late-career artistic renaissance for Nelson. A Beautiful Time fits nicely into an ever-growing string of albums that come close to rivaling Nelson’s absolute best.
First things first: Willie’s voice shows a hint of age, but the wear and tear work for him, and his guitar playing is as good as ever. The album opens with “I’ll Love You Till the Day I Die”, a new song in classic country mode, written by an intriguing pair of collaborators: Rodney Crowell and Chris Stapleton. The song is about a chance encounter that leaves a lifetime impression on the narrator and sets the stage for an album that often touches on themes of memory and mortality.
As has often been the case with latter-day Nelson albums, A Beautiful Time combines a handful of Nelson/Cannon originals with recent songs by other songwriters and a couple of familiar covers. The Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends” is a fine choice for Nelson, especially with that nudge-nudge-wink-wink “I get high with a little help with my friends” lyric.
Even better is hearing Nelson tackle Leonard Cohen’s odd and wry “Tower of Song”. Nelson digs deep into Cohen’s idiosyncratic lyrics about living and working in the titular tower while trying to get Hank William’s attention, “about a hundred floor above me”. Some nice steel guitar by either Mike Johnson or Bobby Terry adds to the atmospheric music that frames Nelson’s reading of Cohen’s songwriters meditation.
Nelson’s originals this time around include the nostalgic “My Heart Was a Dancer”, the country weeper, “Don’t Touch Me There”, and “Live Every Day”, with its message, “live every day like it’s your last one and one day you’re gonna be right”. A bit too-on-the-nose, maybe, but the man raises a good point. In another new original, the mid-tempo rave-up, “I Don’t Go to Funerals”, Nelson presents the lighter side of mortality when he pointedly notes, “I don’t go to funerals / And I sure won’t be at mine.”
These songs are all worthy additions to the Nelson canon, but “Energy Follows Thought” is a new instant classic Nelson tune. Nelson gets both practical and metaphysical here, opening with “Imagine what you want / Then get out of the way / Remember energy follows thought / So be careful what you say.” “Energy Follows Thought” is a thought-provoking song that explores both potential ramifications, both positive and negative, of how the energy that follows thought can be used. In the tradition of “Still Is Still Moving to Me”, “Energy Follows Thought” is a bit of Nelson’s philosophy that’s practical and a bit cosmic.
Nelson closes A Beautiful Time with “Leave You with a Smile”, a song by Cannon, Bobby Terry (who plays various instruments on the album), and Matt Rossi. The track can be heard as a one-on-one love song or as a valedictory note to the fans who have supported Nelson forever. Either way, “Leave You with a Smile” is a beautiful way to wrap up A Beautiful Time.