Willie Nelson spent nearly two decades with Columbia, starting with his 1975 breakthrough (and first chart topper), Red Headed Stranger. He bounced around a number of majors and indies through the `90s and `00s, and now returns to the Sony fold via the company's Legacy division, an imprint known more for its vast array of catalog reissues than for new music. But as a heritage artist, it's a good fit, as Nelson revisits material from his catalog, chestnuts from the `30s and `40s, covers of recent pop songs, and new titles from his pen and that of his son, Lukas. The results are vital, and surprisingly coherent, if perhaps not always tightly focused. Covers of Pearl Jam ("Just Breathe") and Coldplay ("The Scientist") intermingle with Western Swing ("My Home in San Antone" and a terrifically jazzy "My Window Faces South"), `40s weepers ("Cold War with You"), and newly written originals.
The album's guests include Merle Haggard, Jamey Johnson, Billy Joe Shaver, Ray Price, and in a bit of stunt-casting, Snoop Dogg. Nelson's voice is more lined with frailty than in his prime, but his idiosyncratic phrasing plays well with the cracks in his tone. He's joined by his son Lukas on eight of the album's tracks, which is a bit much of the junior Nelson's higher, more nasal voice. More impressive are Lukas Nelson's original songs, including the father-son duet "No Place to Fly" and the painful memories continually resurfacing in "Every Time He Drinks He Thinks of Her." The elder Nelson's two new originals include the honky-tonk "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die" and the western gospel "Come on Back Jesus," each describing an element of Willie's faith. Nelson's still raising hell, albeit in a quieter, more personal way, and drawing on more than fifty years of writing and singing, his music is aging gracefully. 3-3/4 stars, if allowed fractional ratings. [©2012 Hyperbolium]