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Published: 2006/12/23
by Glenn Alexander

Songbird – Willie Nelson

Lost Highway

Willie Nelson and Ryan Adams — two of the most idiosyncratic and prolific artists working today — are both totally incorrigible (thank goodness) and immensely talented. Nelson, whose influence on country music and songwriting is vast, has become comfortable yet surprisingly daring in his legend’s clothes; and Adams (the producer), a brash, gifted proliferator of country, pop, and rock’s many derivations, is slavishly devoted to following his muse and tweaking his style. So, while news of their pairing together for an album initially spawned cheers in the alleys and blog rooms around the music-verse, it never before felt terribly obvious that these two needed one another. Once the announcement came, however, it seemed like some unforeseen zeitgeist had been tapped in to. It was a match made in heaven.

Adams' band The Cardinals carry the songs to their (almost entirely) glorious destinations, moving from country-rock to ballad to pop rather delicately, if not a little sloppily at times. However, a loose band like this one is a perfect fit for Nelson, most namely because he himself is an astoundingly loose singer, able to weave gorgeous melodies that teeter on the edge of falling apart, making the resolutions ever more sweet and accomplished. He is a master, something which the Cardinals seem to delight in, but can’t quite match. What the Cardinals and Adams may lack in experience, they more than make up for in a willingness to take Nelson through the songs rather gracefully and, in turn, help turn Songbird into a collaborative success.

The opener “Rainy Day Blues” — an unfastened, noodly country shuffle reminiscent of something off Willie’s Milk Cow Blues — bears the mark of Adams’ wily instincts for the project. The ever-present reverb drenched electric guitars chatter in the background (a little too much guitar chatter, actually), and Willie weaves in and out of the band’s expressions. The sound is atmospheric and dense, with the echoes and reverberations bouncing alongside Willie’s singing and the song’s tried and true country formula. From this opener, its apparent that Adams’ arrangements might be a bit heavy, but not heavy enough to sink the project. Its good start, if not the perfect one.

“Songbird” works the best perhaps because it reinvents the original and manages to give the song an unmistakable mark of originality; it is also where The Cardinals markedly beautiful spacey country-rock style is reigned in most effectively and thus is most appreciated. Those songs that most distinctly bear the mark of Adams the producer are “Blue Hotel” (an Adams original), the aforementioned title track, and Gram Parson’s “$1000 Wedding.” The latter is an example of Willie finding his groove in Adams’ own country rock style, as opposed to the other way around and “Blue Hotel” is just a forlorn and shockingly beautiful song. It is also one of Adams’ finest, with a vocal choir taking it over the top in fine form at the end. Leonard Cohen’s much-covered “Hallelujah” is tastefully stripped of much of the emotional density that has followed it through its many incarnations. Adams applies a simple equation and the result is a one of the most tender moments on Songbird.

“Stella Blue” is where things get tricky. Arguably the most gorgeous song in the Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia catalogue, it’s hard to imagine it getting mucked up, especially with Adams’ devotion to The Dead. While the instrumentation and execution largely do the song justice and Willie’s voice is an absolutely perfect fit, the guitar solo is simply too garish for the song’s sparse and beautiful shape. The rest of the song, however, proves why this song seemed like such a great idea to begin with. It floats without disappearing into its own atmosphere. Willie, God bless him, keeps it grounded just long enough to bring it on home with style.

The overall result here is one of Willie’s best and most distinctive albums since the Daniel Lanois produced Teatro; both albums are heavily imprinted by the producers’ marks, and both manage to sound all the better for it. Songbird, while a success, often feels a little weighed down by Adams’ guitar heavy and reverb-laden production. But still, Adams manages to pull it off with just enough legroom to spare failure. While The Cardinals’ loose feel often match Willie’s even looser (and wiser) instincts, they rarely match his poise and elegance, although do a fine enough job. While Willie might be too far along to reinvent himself, he allows himself to get carried away in the grasp of unique moments he deems worthy of his talent, and revels in the minor reinventions that suit his style. Thankfully, Adams delivered just that for him.

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