Out There

Slick Willie

Willie Nelson
Island Records

Willie Nelson has more music inside him than white blood cells. For him, making up this genius stuff is easier than blinking. Which is why Teatro--the sound made when you get Emmylou Harris' Wrecking Ball and Nelson's own Spirit into bed and turn out the lights--is that much of a grand accomplishment...and also such a profound disappointment. Fact is, a man this God-blessed by talent shouldn't have to try as hard as producer Daniel Lanois makes it all appear. The notion of Nelson hooking up with Lanois--the middle-age, new-age version of hip--is intriguing enough. After all, Lanois rendered Bob Dylan's dead-man's croak into an ethereal sigh and turned Harris' high notes into low moans. But Nelson needs no such help from Lanois, whose idea of invention is filling in every blank with some gimmicky effect. Set Nelson down with a guitar, which he plays like Django Reinhardt on a Hank Williams bender, and with that voice of his, as pliant and cozy as old leather, and you're guaranteed only magnificence; 1996's Spirit proved as much, Willie singing his love songs to God and gal (almost) all by his lonesome. It was perfect--no, better than that.

With Teatro, Nelson tries to repeat--and one-up--history. It picks up where Spirit ended, with him playing sad Spanish lullabies; indeed, Reinhardt's "Ou Es-Tu, Mon Amour" opens the disc, proving once more that Nelson's just a guitar player the way Superman is just a guy. Then he and Lanois and Harris resurrect seven old songs from Nelson's back catalog, add a few new ones and a Lanois cover, then "modernize" the whole lot by layering on the doubled percussion instruments (damn near every song's a rumba!) and ambient keyboards and vibraphones. Never has sparse sounded so cluttered, especially on songs such as "Everywhere I Go" and "Darkness on the Face of the Earth," where the drums beat the tenebrous mood half to death.

Teatro works wonderfully as a concept album about love and its inevitable heartbreak: The first words Nelson utters are from his 1962 song "I Never Cared for You," a forgotten gem from his Nashville days. "The sun is filled with ice and gives no warmth at all," he sings through his nose and from his soul; it's a cold-hearted kiss-off delivered like a love letter. Later, he offers this lament: "I broke her heart so many times that now at last I've broken mine," resurrecting the 36-year-old "I've Just Destroyed the World." But Nelson is his own atmosphere, so too bad Lanois commits the producer's ultimate sin by thinking he's more important than the songs. There's an astonishing record in here somewhere, buried beneath Lanois' garbage.

--Robert Wilonsky


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