Willie Nelson’s ‘A Beautiful Time’ just might be the best album of the year

by: Sam C. Mac

At 89, the Texas country-music legend is at the top of his game, finding new beauty in old songs by The Beatles and Leonard Cohen.

Times change, political landscapes shift, new trends in music arrive and expire with the passing of the years. But never will a moment come when we no longer need great songwriters—musical minds that know how to make sense and poetry out of our strange existence. Nor will we ever run out of use for genius singers, voices with the incalculable ability to dig into a lyric and render universal emotions from words on a page.

One of Texas’ favorite sons, Willie Hugh Nelson, was graced with both of these special talents, and most of us learned long ago never to take them for granted. Still, A Beautiful Time, released back in April, might disarm even longtime fans who recognize that the Willie Nelson of today is as valuable a figure in American music as he was when he and his buddy Waylon Jennings set about emancipating themselves from the Nashville label system in the 1970s. Not only is Nelson’s 72nd solo effort likely the best album of 2022 (with only 40-or-so calendar days left to unseat it), it’s also as assured a showcase for his ineffable gifts as he’s ever crafted—an unexpected shot of vitality, good humor, and pathos from a great artist fast-approaching his 90th birthday but showing no sign that he’s ready to blow out a final candle anytime soon.

The great Nelson albums rely on no single proven formula. The concept record has been a well to which he’s returned often, and it’s resulted in clear masterpieces like the murderous horse opera Red Headed Stranger (1975) and late-career mortality meditation December Day (2014), but also the narratively muddled song-suite Tougher Than Leather (1983) and plainly mismatched genre workouts like Milk Cow Blues (2000). Another favorite card in old Willie’s deck has been the collaborative record, a path to surprising and essential deep cuts like his album with Hank Snow (Brand on My Heart) and his virtuoso team-up with Texas swing stalwarts Asleep at the Wheel (Willie and the Wheel), but also one that’s led to at least a couple more kitschy duets with Waylon than necessary. The only real tried-and-true strategy of Nelson’s discography is a reliance on his peerless skills as an interpretive singer, a vocalist who feels out every emotion in a song so convincingly that even the ones he didn’t write tend to sound like direct transmissions from his soul.

A Beautiful Time boasts a number of exceptional vocal performances from the 89-year-old. Some can be heard on the songs he co-wrote with longtime collaborator Buddy Cannon, others on tunes penned by leading figures from today’s Nashville establishment, like Texas-born Rodney Crowell and Kentuckian Chris Stapleton. None are better than Willie/Cannon’s extraordinary ode to pragmatism and patience, “Energy Follows Thought,” although the abundance of affirmation and amnesty on “Live Every Day” make for a worthy second-place finish. More eyebrow-raising, though, are two songs on this tracklist that stand out for how unlikely it is to imagine anyone needing new interpretations of them… at least, until you hear Nelson’s.

The original synth-pop version of Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song” from I’m Your Man (1988) is by no means definitive; as with many of Cohen’s songs, live versions from later in his life do his wise-beyond-their-years lyrics more justice. Covers of the song, though, tend to be by younger artists, not older ones, and they usually reach for a gospel-like reverence in spite of funny lines like, “I asked Hank Williams, ‘How lonely does it get?’ / Hank Williams hasn’t answered me yet.” Believe that Nelson feels that bitter joke in his bones as deeply as he does “My friends are gone and my hair is gray” in his head and his heart. In fact, he feels every line of this great song, not as if he were singing some sacred text but rather narrating his own storied career—or casting an oddball pop classic as a country standard, replete with lonesome harmonica and gorgeous, crying steel guitar.

A recasting of genre is critical to the success of the other ostensibly dubious cover here, of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends,” which Nelson lends a lovely southern twang and the warmth and immediacy of a rowdy barroom band. Important, too, is the sense that the “friends” here are, for the most part, long gone—that they live in Nelson’s heart and in his mind, that it’s their memory (and some getting high, of course) that gets him through the day. Which is to say, Nelson opens the song to new interpretation, as is his wont and our great pleasure—turning the buoyant psych-rock of Sgt. Pepper’s tuneful curio into a moving elegy, the full-band accompaniment seeming to summon the spirits of fallen country vets whom Nelson considers extensions of his own legacy, like Waylon, Merle Haggard, and Billy Joe Shaver.

What makes A Beautiful Time so special is that its unabated confrontation of mortality comes without the grimness and resigned sense of expectancy that usually follow such a concept, especially from aging singer-songwriters. Nelson never seems much focussed on The End here (sample song title: “I Don’t Go to Funerals”), too absorbed is he with making sure every moment that he has left is spent in the company of others, reveling in the power of a lifelong love and sharing the wisdom accrued from his years on this planet. This album is Nelson’s earnest encouragement to keep living, and to never stop looking for meaning in life even after the most beautiful times are over.

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