Willie Nelson – Across the Borderline Columbia CK 52752 (1993)
It’s hard to mention Willie Nelson’s name without two things immediately coming to mind: marijuana and the IRS (Internal Revenue Service). It’s the latter that provides the backdrop for this album. Due to reliance on investment advice that turned out to be fraudulent, Willie accumulated a tax debt to which the government added numerous penalties so that it ballooned to many millions of dollars. As it turns out, Willie didn’t manage his money well and his star (and record sales) had faded, leaving him without the funds to pay the bill. So began a period of years when friends and fans purchased his old assets and sold them back to him–often for pennies on the dollar. He even released an album direct-marketed over TV, The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories?, to help pay the IRS. Eventually Willie won a lawsuit over the accounting firm that gave him the investment advise originally, and he settled the IRS debt and returned his full attention to the music business. The first album after the IRS days drew to a close was Across the Borderline.
This album shows more promise than anything Willie had done since the mid/late 1970s. Paul Simon‘s “American Tune” is a fantastic opener, and there is more great stuff in store like John Hiatt‘s “(The) Most Unoriginal Sin.” But, the album doesn’t quite hold to that high standard throughout. It feels like Willie is trying to follow the same path as Bob Dylan by recruiting a rock producer, Don Was (plus Paul Simon and Roy Halee). Hell, Willie even teams up with Dylan for “Heartland” and covers another Dylan tune later on the album. After a full decade of lazy irrelevance, Across the Borderline showed Willie still had good music in him. But it would be in the late 1990s that he delivered his best recordings since the 70s, in Spirit and Teatro.
Willie Nelson – Yesterday’s Wine RCA Victor LSP-4568 (1971)
Willie Nelson had a recording session scheduled in May 1971. He had grown lazy as a songwriter over the years, and he didn’t really have material lined up for the album. The night before recording began (!), he wrote much of the material — at least seven of the songs — that ended up on Yesterday’s Wine. The result is a major departure from his “typical Nashville” albums of the previous ten years. This subdued concept album about coming to terms with religion in adulthood strips the music back to spare, intimate settings. Often there is little more than Nelson’s voice, acoustic guitar and bass, with piano or steel guitar appearing only briefly, even just momentarily. Although mellower and more laid-back (the Willie Way!), it’s a format a bit like Bob Dylan‘s albums Nashville Skyline or John Wesley Harding (not all that surprising, given that session man Charlie McCoy appears on both Dylan’s and Nelson’s albums). The singer-songwriter movement sweeping the music industry seems to have had some effect on Nelson. Recorded with a mix of Nelson’s touring band and a few session men, the album’s experiments don’t fully succeed. There is a stiffness in the performances, with the backing band often just plodding along — it’s hard to blame them for lack of practice, though, when the songs were written the night before! Nelson seems tentative in his vocals too. He’s in new, unfamiliar territory, and he hasn’t entirely sorted out where he’s headed. His vocals shed much of the crooning style that he relied on so much the previous decade. The album’s greatest strength remains the great songwriting. Chief among the new songs is the classic road rambling tale “Me and Paul,” written in honor of Nelson’s touring drummer and former pimp/hoodlum Paul English.
Willie Nelson – Spirit Island 314-524 242-2 (1996)
Not as well-known as Willie’s great albums of the 1970s, Spirit is one of his few later-career efforts that belongs in that same category of his very best. 1976’s The Sound In Your Mind was his peak as a vocalist, but Spirit is his peak as a guitarist. His iconic nylon stringed guitar Trigger never sounded better.
Bob Dylan – Together Through Life Columbia 88697 43893 2 (2009)
Here’s the first real break in continuity Dylan has offered in his recordings since Time Out of Mind more than a decade earlier. There are similarities, of course. This still works with simple blues forms, but Dylan is also leaning on the melodramatic airs of Tin Pan Alley. The songwriting is perhaps less compelling than on his last few albums. Lots of the material was co-written with Robert Hunter, the frequent lyricist for The Grateful Dead. But, surprisingly, the production values of the album are quite nice. It sounds crisp and woody, rather than warm and fuzzy like the last few recordings. It seems almost like the musicians are performing live right in front of you. An accordion is featured prominently (you may remember this only as “the accordion album”, like jazz musician Henry Threadgill‘s Where’s Your Cup?). This one may seem like a throwaway, but it does have an easygoing charm even if that very quality simultaneously threatens to prevent it from reaching escape velocity to leave the orbit of easy listening/adult contemporary schmaltz. Although it’s rather listenable it isn’t always memorable. If people often say that any effort you put into listening to Dylan’s music is repaid many times over, then this album turns that around because it makes for probably the easiest listening in his whole catalog but intense scrutiny probably won’t pay off as much.
Bob Dylan – MTV Unplugged Columbia CK 67000 (1995)
Here’s a turning point for Dylan. He had been in a tailspin (often a flaming tailspin) since the late 1970s. His (in)ability to cope with his celebrity status was a big part of the problem, and over time he simply wasn’t usually engaged in the recording process. Dylan would veto efforts by producers to clean up his albums, and he would veto the inclusion of some of the better songs (borne out by the Bootleg Series and Biograph sets). He also would not rehearse sufficiently with his bands prior to recording, and would refuse to do further takes to get a song right. Worst of all, he just tended to coast by while putting in a half effort, at best. This was all compounded by him allegedly being an alcoholic. But a lot of this changed when MTV approached him to do an “unplugged” concert series and album. For the first time in decades, maybe even ever, he was willing to listen to what the studio execs wanted. They wanted Bob Dylan’s greatest hits live. Bob proves somewhat disinterested in these performances, but in listening to the executives he sort of grew up in a way. He was, to put it bluntly, selling out. But in selling out he was also accepting a more viable way of managing his career. In a word, it was professionalism — making him out to be something more like a hard-working entertainer doing what was expected of him by others than a sensitive “artiste” holding out that his place and legacy in society wasn’t fully crystallized. He was ready to give his fans what they wanted, mostly because he was paying attention to the business side of his affairs and seemed to want the steady stream of income that some concessions would provide. But this was also his recognition that he didn’t have complete latitude and needed to take into account circumstances beyond his control. So consider MTV Unplugged like Dylan clearing his throat, preparing to launch into the last part of his career with some sort of enthusiasm. Once he accepted his status as a “rock legend” from an earlier era he could work within that context for his next album Time Out of Mind, spinning tales of jaded regret, bemused nostalgia and weary longing that only work from that perspective of aged credibility (the classic mid-life crisis resolution). Freed from the burdens of having to sound “new” and “contemporary” he could just pick out bits and pieces from familiar terrain and put them together in a way that sounded convincing not contrived.
Bob Dylan – Oh Mercy Columbia CK 45281 (1989)
Oh Mercy is a contender, along with Time Out of Mind, Good as I Been to You and even Empire Burlesque (yes!) and possibly Slow Train Coming, as one of the best post-Desire Bob Dylan albums. This one comes as a surprise though. Dylan wasn’t exactly in peak form at the end of the 1980s. In fact, he was in something more akin to a downward spiral. The effort Dylan put into this album was leaps and bounds ahead of his previous effort Down in the Groove. It wouldn’t last. The follow-up Under the Red Sky was vapid and unconvincing (thanks to Dylan vetoing almost all production efforts). It was as if Dylan had no idea whatsoever what worked and what didn’t anymore. But, this album wouldn’t be the last of this type of songwriting. In fact, after a “reboot” with the acoustic folk album Good as I Been to You, Dylan explored simple blues rock structures with World Gone Wrong and from then on out was on autopilot. He would return to the songwriting style of this album most of the time. Some late period albums just shifted the textures of the backing music to the utilitarian sounds of World Gone Wrong, without really taking a different thematic or structural approach. Oh Mercy sounded like the product of a songwriter past middle age. Straight from the opener “Political World,” it’s clear that he was interested in tackling subject matter that younger performers probably wouldn’t pursue. This is a little uneven at times. Time Out of Mind is better (and Empire Burlesque too, even if I’m the only person who thinks so), but Time Out of Mind was really a reassessment and refinement of the same style on display here in more tentative form.
Bob Dylan – Time Out of Mind Columbia CK 68556 (1997)
I have to admit I’m not sold on the idea of this being one of Dylan’s all-time best albums. Though it certainly is one of the better ones of the last part of his career. This is certainly more consistent that most of what Dylan had done in the 1980s. He basically takes the best elements he had experimented with since Oh Mercy and combines them into a unified package, courtesy of producer Daniel Lanois. Probably the main reasons that this one succeeds is that Dylan actually tries and he lets his producer do his job without much interference. The result is a testament to the new, more “professional” Bob Dylan, who proved much more likeable than the erratic, boozy, incoherent, bratty Dylan that had overstayed his welcome for the last few decades like a weekend house guest still lingering around a week later.
Rosanne Cash – The River & The Thread Blue Note B001951102 (2014)
There are artists who paint within the lines, and those who don’t. Rosanne Cash has always been one to stay within the lines. Everything she does has precedents, though not always in the realm of country music where she is best known. But she paints within the lines in a way that is convincing and rich, wanting for nothing outside those bounds. The River & The Thread is among the finest work of her career. She just keeps getting better and better with age. Songs like “The Sunken Lands” and “50,000 Watts” are taut and lively, while staying within arm’s reach of the mellow vibe Cash is known for. Good stuff.
Rosanne Cash – The Essential Rosanne Cash Legacy 88697 82710 2 (2011)
Rosanne was always a country artist, but really her interests lay elsewhere much of the time. The template for much of her career is Willie Nelson‘s Stardust. Willie took traditional pop ballads and gave them an extremely light country treatment. Rosanne was much younger than Willie, so she instead looked to AM radio light rock of the early 1970s and popular rock of much of the 1960s to the 1980s to some extent too and gave those sources a light country/folk touch. She avoided entirely the kind of affected half-yodel country singing that was popular throughout her career. This particular collection tracks mostly her singles. It seems to omit certain fan favorite album tracks, perhaps because they are too edgy for commercial radio and weren’t selected as singles. This is all pleasant music, even if it is a little plain much of the time. It is marked with impeccable professionalism and fine craftsmanship throughout, full of rich and varied sonic palettes that would usually be incongruous with music this sombre and plaintive. Really, though, Rosanne got better with time, and her later albums like Black Cadillac had a bit more character than much of what came before, which makes this collection somewhat premature for an artist still recording stuff that is as good as she ever has since this was released.
Willie Nelson – Stardust Columbia JC 35305 (1978)
Here’s the album that (nearly) ruined Willie Nelson. The premise is that he performs jazz and pop standards like “Stardust,” “Blue Skies,” and “Someone to Watch Over Me” soullessly backed by Booker T. Jones arrangements. This was a multi-platinum smash hit. This is not so much country music as easy listening. Yet unlike the subtle pathos that someone like Nat “King” Cole could deliver with such an approach, Willie just coasts along on the surface of the songs, floating by on light, fluffy orchestration. This album helped cement some of Willie’s worst tendencies as a performer, giving him license to continue to avoid the “heaving lifting” of interpretive singing that involves seeking out an emotional or intellectual connection with the material and conveying it in a uniquely-suited performance. If you do like this, you’ll be happy to note that Nelson went on to make a truckload more almost just like it. Others may find this tediously boring. “Georgia on My Mind” is still really good.