Willie Nelson: Teatro

Willie Nelson
Teatro
Island

IN RECENT YEARS Willie Nelson has probably been better known for Farm Aid and tax hassles than for his recorded output. Which is too bad, because, while generational compatriots like George Jones, Waylon Jennings, and Merle Haggard have struggled to remain relevant in Nashville, Nelson has taken a more obscure path. He's been quietly prolific in the '90s, producing a commercial triumph, 1993's cameo-filled Across the Borderline, and the less popular artistic milestone, 1996's spare, gorgeous Spirit. And now there's Teatro, his best record in ages.

Named after producer Daniel Lanois's California studio, Teatro gives Nelson an aural backdrop that complements the natural gifts he displayed on Spirit. Only on the Lanois-penned "The Maker" does the producer's wash of sound impinge on the star's lovely, ageless sing-speak and trademark guitar. Nelson has always been more western than country, and his Tex-Mex leanings aren't any more attractive than his Social Security eligibility in today's Nashville. But these are the things that make him an ideal candidate for Lanois's atmospheric take on already distant American musics. The presence of Emmylou Harris--the planet's most ubiquitous backup singer--and a stronger emphasis on percussion than on any previous Nelson record--make Teatro a fascinating sonic experience. Still, the real treat here is the way studio guitarist Brian Griffiths adds West African and Caribbean shadings to Nelson's own south-of-the-border acoustic leads.

Most of the songs were written in the '60s. There are three new Willie Nelson songs, but don't get too excited. None of them is half as memorable as his dusty Music Row retreads. Despite the apocalyptic tone of the song titles ("Darkness on the Face of the Earth," "The Maker," "I've Just Destroyed the World"), the prevailing subject is, per usual, love gone awry. In timeworn country fashion, these tales of deranged estrangement sometimes end in violence: The 30-year-old "I Just Can't Let You Say Goodbye" is a startlingly graphic account of a lost love and murder. But more often they end drunk on self-pity. The "Three Days" filled with "tears and sorrow" are "yesterday, today, and tomorrow," and the singer's "Home Motel" sits on "Lost Love Avenue." But then making self-pity tangible has been a C&W mission since before Hank Williams's son called another man Daddy; there's no point in quibbling over a good thing.

 
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