Just last year, Willie Nelson released one of his greatest records in some time. Just lovely. At 87 he didn’t sound a day over 85, the way he’s sounded since at least 1985. And in true love ‘em and leave ‘em style here is, just a few months later, with another brand new set of recordings. This one is all covers of songs made famous by Frank Sinatra. And if you thought that was Bob Dylan’s latest trick, this is actually Willie’s second set of tunes by Ol’ Blue Eyes in the last few years – That’s Life following on from 2018’s My Way. (Don’t you just love the way that Willie can make a line his own – even with album titles, even when taking a song made famous by someone else and just deciding that’ll be the name of his new album).
That’s Life. And at 87 Willie’s had four lives at least by my count and if you thought his idea of an evergreen was a joint that you never needed to re-light, he first started treating songs this way (with utmost care, with tenderness, with respect, imbuing them with his unique phrasing, basically a big hug from an old mate) some 40 years ago with Stardust.
That’s Life might not feature the range of songs that Stardust does but if it isn’t nearly its equal it certainly plays like some familiar sequel; more so than My Way, more so than the standards that have peppered his records ever since the late 1970s.
There’s just something about the way Willie puts a line, we can feel the cheeky smile as he sings You Make Me Feel So Young, the knowing reflection in the title track and, for me, most exquisitely here during In The Wee Small Hours of The Morning. That weariness in his voice isn’t some desperate valedictorian croak, rather a soft comfort arriving with wisdom, drenched in nostalgia and always just the right shade of lived-in, slightly sapped but never spent. His voice is the dog-eared novel that somehow gives you more even in the thinness of its pages, as if somehow you’re absorbing the stories of all that have bent that spine before you, as well as the story in the print. That’s what Willie does with these songs.
It’s actually a largely upbeat and brisk affair too – he’s here for a good time, not a long time. Diana Krall stops by to duet on I Won’t Dance, the piano bounces along on Nice Work If You Can Get It and Luck Be A Lady and Learnin’ The Blues. But there are those lovely other instruments we always associate with Nelson’s treatments – a gorgeous waft of harmonica on Just In Time, soul-crying steel on Nice Work If You Can Get It and jazz guitar licks on I’ve Got You Under My Skin.
This is just lovely. Absolutely lovely. And as Willie heads down towards 90 on life’s highway the music he’s choosing is making him feel so young. And he sounds it too – more lively and alive than on most of his (largely) great albums from across the last decade.
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