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Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is A Beautiful Time, the new album from country music legend Willie Nelson.
Willie Nelson has been writing songs about what it means to be alive for more than 60 years, sustaining a career through 12 U.S. presidents and at least six musical release formats. That type of longevity has rarely been replicated, particularly since Nelson, for these last seven decades, has been writing incredible and meaningful songs the whole time. There’s been no periods of artistic drop-off, no low point, just a level of consistency that is barely possible to aspire to. As we shared when we released our new Anthology, The Story of Willie Nelson, there has been no better chronicler of all the stages of human existence than Willie Nelson: He started singing about being crazy and lonely, and has written about everything else since.
In the last few years, some of his most prolific, he’s put out a series of albums that pay homage to his heroes — Gershwin and Sinatra especially — and that capture a reality very little in pop culture explores: old age, but particularly the old age where you see the finish line more clearly than you see the starting line. His splendid new album, A Beautiful Time, released on his 89th birthday, is, like Last Man Standing and God’s Problem Child before it, full of heartbreaking, clever songs about aging and death, rendered in that straight-talking Willie way. Like the best Willie Nelson albums, no matter your age, it’s impossible to leave A Beautiful Time without a towering life-affirming feeling, like you just got the best life advice you’ve ever received.
Centered around the Shawn Camp-penned “A Beautiful Time” — a song about remembering the good times spent on the road performing — A Beautiful Time is full of songs with wistful memories, and happy tear remembrances of times and people long gone. “I Don’t Go To Funerals,” one of five new songs on the album by Nelson and longtime producer Buddy Cannon, finds Willie singing that “those who’ve gone before me, will save my space in line.” He imagines the concerts he’ll have upstairs when he dies, “making our memories rhyme” with Waylon, John, Merle and Patsy. The waltz “My Heart Was A Dancer” remembers the days when it felt like his heart and spirit were dancing, wishing for them not to be still. “Live Every Day” is an instant classic “Tao of Willie” moment, with its chorus reminding: “Live every day like it’s your last one, and one day you’re gonna be right.” “I’ll Love You Till The Day I Die” reckons with the memory of a long-ago love that is impossible to shake, despite the time passing since you met. In “Don’t Touch Me There” he asks a paramour to remember the sensitivity of his heart, which can’t take another heartbreak. The album’s heartbreaking final song is “Leave You With A Smile,” a song that has Nelson hoping, despite whatever else, he leaves you — his lovers, his audience, his family — with a smile.
Despite the naked reckoning with the passage of time, the album’s peaks are in two covers of Willie’s contemporary songwriters: Leonard Cohen and the Beatles. Willie’s cover of “Tower Of Song” feels like a spectral handshake with Cohen. The original names one of Nelson’s heroes — Hank Williams — and dissects the reality of being someone addicted to songwriting, despite the toll it takes on the songwriter. Nelson renders his cover in a hushed whisper, matching Cohen’s original in its aura. But it’s his cover of the Beatles’ “With A Little Help From My Friends” that packs the most emotional punch. Willie has spent his career leaning on his friendships with everyone from Ray Price to Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash to Kris Kristofferson, Kacey Musgraves to Merle Haggard. Hearing him sing this song after losing so many of his friends to the vagaries of time feels emotionally resonant in a way the original — sung by men 65 years younger than Willie now — couldn’t reach. Listening to Willie’s weathered voice hit the “And I’ll try not to sing out of tune” part here is enough to make you wish for another 60-plus years, that the reality Willie confronts on this album never comes and that we’ll never need to know what it’s like to not hear new Willie Nelson albums.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.