- 29 Apr 22
God's Own Singer
It might be fashionable, and accurate, to praise the strong late-career runs of Bowie or Cohen or Dylan but Willie Nelson may have them all beat. Despite the odd Sinatra-inspired misstep, albums like God’s Problem Child, Last Man Standing, and 2020’s truly exceptional First Rose Of Spring are as good as anything the once red headed stranger has previously released, and that is indeed saying something, because Willie Nelson is a giant. Yes, he is ostensibly a country artist, but Nelson is more that welcome to have a go at what's come to be called the Great American Songbook because he's still writing in it.
All it takes is Nelson’s voice – only slightly cracked, still strong – emerging from the usual fine mix of piano, guitar and harmonica on ‘I’ll Love You Till The Day I Die’ to knock you over. This is one of the most recognisable - and welcome - sounds in music, comparable to Charlie and Keith rolling together, John and Paul harmonising, a Wailers groove, Aretha's voice, or any other cornerstone. "I suppose you're going to tell us next he could sing the phonebook," you cry. I'll leave that for others, but remember, this sound once came close to making the mewling of Coldplay palatable, because Nelson has way of conveying a feeling through melody that would break the heart of a Christian Brother. If the gorgeous simplicity - the kind of just-play-what's-neededness achievable only by master musicians - of something like ‘Dreamin’ Again’ or the closing ‘Leave You With A Smile’ ("I'd drink in every drop of you, and never get my fill, if I could make my time with you stand still") don’t have you in a puddle then something very bad must have happened in your past.
Leonard Cohen’s ‘Tower Of Song’ might have been written for Nelson, if there's a room reserved for anyone in that building in the hereafter then I suspect there's a suite with Willie's name on the door, and in its way this cover is as effective as Jeff Buckley saving of 'Hallelujah' from talent-show hell, but it’s his own ‘I Don’t Go To Funerals’ that strikes the suitably defiant note. He won’t be at his ceremony because he’ll be off with those who went before him. “Life is sweet, love is good, we have had a good time.” You can’t say fairer than that.
The title track is the very definition of growing old gracefully. As Trigger twangs and Mickey Raphael’s harmonica sings, Nelson reflects on a life well-lived. “When the last song’s been played, I’ll look back and say, I sure had a beautiful time.” 'Dusty Bottles', 'Live Every Day', 'Energy Follows Thought' - the song titles alone are the only self-help manual you'll ever need.
Of all people, my teenage daughter recently admitted an admiration for country music - to be fair, she was force fed a lot of it growing up - because, she said, the songs are about real things. Love as it actually is, not how we'd like it to be. Life as a hard thing, flecked with beauty but also veined with pain and loss, but if we're lucky we'll get near the end of it with a mixture of acceptance and appreciation, because it is, despite every set back which seems to arrive just as thing are going well, a beautiful time. A lesson in philosophy - "don't get me wrong, I miss being young, but there's something to be said for getting older" or "live every day like it was your last one, and one day you're going to be right" - as much as anything else, Nelson faces mortality with a grin, thankful for a full life, where every up and down mattered. We should all be so blessed.
- Live Review
- 27 Mar 23