Nelson and his stable of writers take stock with such warmth and insight that the lightness hides the emotional weight it carries.
Willie Nelson’s on disc three of a mortality trilogy, but given where we’re all headed, that’s convenient numbering if you paint in broad strokes. That’s becauseRide Me Back Home is only sort of about mortality. Nelson doesn’t sing about waiting for death; if anything, he uses his pre-mortem time to look at everything that’s alive. The new album has love, heartbreak, politics and humor, all set against the backdrop of the trilogy. Nelson and his stable of writers take stock with such warmth and insight that the lightness hides the emotional weight it carries.
“Come on Time,” an energetic jaunt co-written with Buddy Cannon, centers its attitude. Time moves past us, quickly, but rather than raging against it, we can laugh at it, roll with it, maybe even turn it to artistic advantage. “Come on time, what have you got for me this time,” Nelson sings. “I’ll take your words of wisdom and I’ll try to make them rhyme.” As long as we age, we can put it to good use. That doesn’t mean there’s full acceptance. Nelson knows better than to hide behind bravado. He knows that time is “winning the race,” and while that might not be good news, he turns toward the fact.
Other tracks come with more of a wink. Nelson covers the Mac Davis staple “It’s Hard to Be Humble” with skillful timing and earned ease. “Seven Year Itch” manages to vamp around a little sensible nonsense. These tracks provide valuable relief. When Nelson sings on the latter, “I decided to write the world’s best song/ But when I got around to it, it had done moved on,” he plays it for a laugh, but no one’s joking when the idea returns on “One More Song to Write.” The upbeat music looks on the bright side of having more left to do, but the whole approach reminds us again that time’s still winning.
Along with his own songs, Nelson covers material well suited for his current perspective. The most surprising (and probably the one that least coheres thematically) is Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are,” which most of us hadn’t realized needed steel guitar. Nelson does it justice, though it feels just a bit like the novelty it is. Guy Clark songs, of course, fit better. “My Favorite Picture of You” remains devastating, and “Immigrant Eyes” fits in a 2019 context as well as it ever has.
That choice shows that Nelson isn’t just thinking about himself as he progresses through his 80s and thinks about what’s to come. He continues to look around him, finding the narratives that matter. On “Nobody’s Listening,” Nelson sings of the trials that can hit any of us, like unemployed or natural disaster, and he thinks about the potential fruitlessness of the singer trying to make a difference. When he sings that “nobody’s listening,” he really means “nobody,” calling out governments and audiences and even making an existential cry asking if anyone here or above is paying attention.
Nelson closes the album with delayed breakup song “Maybe I Should’ve Been Listening.” Sometimes attentiveness, whether in a relationship or in a community, comes too late. Our noticing skills can pick up as the years pass; body language and diction make sense in retrospect. Nelson writes with sharp memory (his previous albums highlight this point), but he turns it to wisdom. Thinking of your own mortality, at its best, involves thinking of other people’s living, and Nelson blends those concerns with great success on Ride Me Back Home.