The short version: ‘Ride Me Back Home’ is a solid conclusion to a trilogy of albums surrounding mortality.
- Favorite tracks: “Seven Year Itch,” “Maybe I Should Have Been Listening,” “Nobody’s Listening,” “Ride Me Back Home,” “It’s Hard To Be Humble (w/ Micah and Lukas Nelson)”
- Least favorite track: “Come On Time”
- Rating: 7/10
The long version: It’s hard to know what to say about a new Willie Nelson album these days.
Granted, it’s not like the quality of the work has declined, as 2018’s Last Man Standing was easily one of the best albums of that year. But there’s a noticeable shift with Nelson’s subject matter on his past few albums – life and death. On one hand, it is something to consider given the increased loss of other music legends in recent years, but that doesn’t make them any less heartbreaking or disturbing to actually listen to, no matter how much humor Nelson imbues into the projects.
As fans, we don’t want to think about the one thing Nelson has for his past few projects now, with 2017’s God’s Problem Child really kick-starting the morbid series. And considering he releases new albums quicker than anyone (his newest album actually follows a Frank Sinatra-inspired album, My Way, from last fall instead of Last Man Standing), we don’t really have time to catch our breath and really assess the meaning of it all.
At this point, you know where the conversation surrounding Nelson’s newest project, Ride Me Back Home, is going; it’s another reflective mixture of songs revolving around the concept of time in serious and humorous manners. But where God’s Problem Child leaned heavily on experimental production textures and Last Man Standing opted for jubilant levity, Ride Me Back Home, in comparison, is a much more subdued and poetic album. At times elegant and at other times beautiful (and usually both), while I wouldn’t say it’s the strongest of the trio of albums, it’s the one that’s likely the most easy to appreciate.
When it comes to a discussion of lyrical content, the subject matter is easy to dissect, though it’s worth noting that Nelson didn’t have a huge hand in writing many of the tracks here, with even “Stay Away From Lonely Places” pulled from his 1972 work, The Words Don’t Fit The Picture. And with two covers by Guy Clark as well as other various covers, this is an album meant to find songs that fit the narrative, and they absolutely succeed in hitting that mark.
But again, it’s the way they’re crafted in terms of lyricism and production and instrumentation that’s most intriguing. For the most part, the instrumental combination is a mixture of Nelson’s signature guitar, Trigger, warm acoustics, pedal steel to accentuate the melodies every now and then, and what gives its signature mark, lounge piano. Despite the album’s humorous moments, this feels like a much more serious affair from Nelson as a whole.
The opener, the title track, may be the best of the entire bunch, in essence being a tribute to a horse, yet having the conversation surround the scene around Nelson, making him appreciate what he has. And when it comes to the concept of time on this album, whereas his past two albums looked to the future, most of these songs focus on freezing a moment of time in black and white, not unlike the album cover. Of course, there’s the aforementioned Clark cover of “My Favorite Picture of You” which Nelson handles with a cute charm, along with Billy Joel’s “Just The Way You Are” with its brighter harmonica tones.
It should also be mentioned that, in addition to fitting the narrative of the album well, these songs also take on new meanings in this context. “Stay Away From Lonely Places” comes from a time when Nelson celebrated the “night life,” but here it’s a cry to surround yourself with people, if only because life is too short to fight the battle alone, which definitely gives it a darker context.
Other songs speak for themselves, such as “One More Song To Write” or “It’s Hard To Be Humble” where Nelson is very much aware of the legacy he’ll leave (and has already left) behind. Though there’s also a track like “Nobody’s Listening,” one of the few original cuts here that speaks to an odd, but intriguing criticism of modern technology and how it ironically disconnects us from real people before ending on a conversation about why songwriters do what they do. Sure, it’s easy to label Nelson as a crazy old man when it comes to a counterpoint here or label the track as scatterbrained, but it goes more to show how, beyond time, it’s the people (or the people within his songs) that have made Nelson’s life so special. If anything, it’s only fitting that the album ends on one of Nelson’s best country songs in awhile, “Maybe I Should’ve Been Listening,” a track that ends on the somber note of being too preoccupied with other activities to appreciate time or the person he loves.
Again, Ride Me Back Home very much plays to similar tropes as recent Nelson albums have, and this can lead to criticisms here and there. “Come On Time,” is fine enough, but Nelson has milked this formula of poking fun at times in more interesting ways on past albums, and when the galloping percussion can’t keep up with his infamous knack for not staying on the beat, it leads to a dry moment overall.
Also, for as muted and elegant as Ride Me Back Home is, there are moments that get it more right than others. The title track has a full instrumental palette of warm acoustics, piano and pedal steel to add its richness, but other tracks are more solely reliant on the lounge piano like the timely Clark cover of “Immigrant Eyes” or “Stay Away From Lonely Places,” and it does tend to make the album feel like it’s dragging at points, particularly in the middle. If anything, it’s refreshing to hear tracks like “Seven Year Itch” with its creeping bluesy stabs or “Hard To Be Humble” which plays things more upbeat and features his sons, Micah and Lukas, to join in the camaraderie.
Still, Nelson’s Ride Me Back Home is a fitting addition to his discography that now marks a trilogy of albums surrounding time and mortality, and considering we should all be thankful we can say we’re alive at the same time Nelson is, perhaps it’d be fitting to heed his advice and stop to appreciate a moment in time now and then, especially that one.