Another year, another Willie Nelson album, and I swear it gets easier and easier to take them for granted, when it should have the opposite effect.
If there’s one thing I’ ve learned when reviewing Nelson’s modern work, though, it’s to stop looking for the individual differences between his albums and see them as small parts of a collective whole: songs about mortality that are either delivered with a wry, self-aware humor or with a somber frankness, love songs that feel timeless for how softspoken and mature they are, and reflections on life on the road, as only death will stop Nelson from telling them.
Still, A Beautiful Time is actually a bit of a unique case – an album that splits the difference between well-known covers, Nelson originals, and songs written by those other than him that are still nevertheless new for this album. Granted, the opening song was co-penned by both Rodney Crowell and Chris Stapleton, so when I say that it all blends together fairly seamlessly – even the more well-known tracks like “Tower of Song” and “With a Little Help From My Friends” – I mean that as a sign of respect to the writers chosen and not a mark against Nelson himself, because even at 89, there’s something so comfortably familiar and consistent with an album like this.
And yes, even despite the deterioration of Nelson’s “Family Band” that’s essentially left both him and Mickey Raphael as its remaining core pieces, that sense of comfort and familiarity shines through in a lot of the instrumentation and presentation. You’re still going to get those welcome warm blasts of acoustics and harmonica augmenting the material, and with these modern works, it feels lived-in in a way that can either play well at more serious reflections or the wry lighthearted cuts. Granted, you’re also going to get the swamped-out bass and cosmic atmospherics reminiscent more of his ‘70s work on the original and strikingly beautiful “Energy Follows Thought,” but for the most part, that consistency in tone is the major plus of any Nelson album.
Granted, even despite what I said earlier about the needlessness of comparing his later albums, I can’t say there’s much here that outshines late-career cuts like, say, “He Won’t Ever Be Gone” or “Last Man Standing.” “I Don’t Go To Funerals” is a pretty humorous cut with a great lyrical hook, but I don’t know what it says that Nelson has moved on from pondering death to pondering the party afterward. But that’s also beside the point when you have tracks that can easily mine those emotional sentiments even without resorting to new ways to say or express them. “Energy Follows Thought” and “Live Every Day” are fairly straightforward warnings to be careful with the time we’re given, but between the slower pace and Nelson’s more serious and absolutely lived-in delivery, they connect regardless.
And as much as no one wants to think about it, it is that lived-in weight that makes even the non Nelson-penned cuts like “I’ll Love You Till The Day I Die” and the title track connect. Heck, the title track just might very well (and ironically enough) be the best snapshot of his love for touring that he’s ever recorded, and it’s just as easy to view a song like “Me and My Partner” as a special nod to Paul English. But it’s also what adds its own weight to a closer like “Leave You With a Smile,” where despite knowing the end may just be near (or not) and that any memories made in a presumably new and budding romance will likely just fleeting snapshots, he’s going to love his partner anyway and make those memories count, because they’ll be remembered as so much more – a truly gutting closer, all things considered.
Again, this record can be a bit of a slow burn in its pacing, and it’s easy to take an album like this for granted when it really is just a continuation of themes and ideas from Nelson’s late-career catalog. I won’t even say that all the covers work – the Beatles cover of “With a Little Help From My Friends” just felt unnecessary – or that some of the more conventional cuts like “Don’t Touch Me There” don’t get outshone by similarly themed tracks. I can’t even say it’s an easy album to take in, knowing the assumed weight behind any Nelson recording now. But I can say it’s worth it, and that as far as legends who remain consistent in their output and quality of it are concerned, Nelson remains in a league of his own.
- Favorite tracks: “Leave You With a Smile,” “Energy Follows Thought,” “Live Every Day,” “I Don’t Go to Funerals,” “Dreamin’ Again”
- Least favorite track: “With a Little Help From My Friends”
- Favorite individual moment: When I realized how simultaneously morbid and hilarious the conceit of “I Don’t Go to Funerals” was, even if I don’t know what to ultimately make of it.