Willie Nelson Puts the Twang Into Frank Sinatra Classics on ‘My Way’
Willie Nelson is a country icon, embodying everything rustic and down-home, in terms of not only country, but also rock ‘n’ roll, as he famously united the hippies and the isolated, provincial country bumpkins who previously raised their eyebrows at the crowd, with his rebellious strain of outlaw country. On the other hand, you have Sinatra, who represents polishing as much as Nelson does ruggedness. Consider that jazz started off as an edgy, provocative style of music, with the freeness of form, and the boldness of the sliding notes and all, mobilizing teenagers into debauched dancing celebrations that society had never before seen the likes of. By the time Sinatra came along, jazz was so deeply ingrained in popular culture that it scarcely batted an eye — it was the standard popular music of the time and with that the divide grows even deeper. As if designed to make heads get scratched, and minds explode, we now have an album of Willie Nelson churning out renditions of Frank Sinatra songs. It’s called “My Way,” and it couldn’t possibly have a better title, as it shows an artist taking on a style of music as alien to his repertoire as one could imagine, and doing it his very own way. While the mishmash of styles might seem a bit awkward at first, it speaks to an almost monumental bridging of gaps, and bares testament to the the universality of music.
Opener “Fly Me To the Moon” immediately lets you know what you’re in store for. It sounds as if Sinatra didn’t show up, perhaps because of some “inside business,” and Nelson filled in. Nelson is putting on no fronts whatsoever — he’s simply singing in his own distinctive voice, and it makes the recording sound a bit confusing, prompting to ask you “WTF is this?” On the other hand, why not? For someone with a reputation as a rebel, what could be more in character than taking up a style that is anathema to the majority of your fanbase? The music strikes, at first, like, say, the Japanese guy singing a Sex Pistols song in the film “Lost In Translation.” It’s pretty alien and comical. But that forces you to ask yourself why it’s so — at which point, you might find yourself asking why one particular vocal style and attitude was ever rather haphazardly matched with a certain musical style to begin with. This music is, in a way, a revolutionarily envisioning. “Summer Wind” shows Nelson putting his touch into the instrumentation as well, as the song features a prominent harmonica, well-fitting for capturing the idea of its title, and giving the song a more rustic, outdoors feel that’s perhaps a better representation of the lyrics than the original. “One More For My Baby (And One More for the Road)” already sounds like it would be a Nelson song — constant touring, copious drinking. And expectedly, Nelson makes it his own. The instrumentation here is, in many ways, decidedly country, with more harmonica, and a general lighthearted looseness, and as a result, the song takes on a very trudging, laidback feel that literally takes you on the road, serving as an effective auditory glimpse into a specific lifestyle and mindset.
“A Foggy Day” finds Nelson tackling a tune with his usual nonchalance, and coming across, at times, as a bit silly, as he hits notes flat, making the absurdity of the musical excursion take precedence over the brilliant novelty of it. At times, it sounds like a Muppets song, in the sense that an awkward voice has been randomly placed over a swing arrangement. If you don’t understand, look up some Kermit the Frog songs, and you’ll get the idea. “It Was a Very Good Year” sounds about right, as Nelson’s recent works have been heavy on nostalgia and retrospection. Here, he sounds pretty natural — although the unnatural parts are one of the things that makes this album so special, so don’t place too much weight on that. “Blue Moon” finds Nelson really getting easy with his singing. He has expressed admiration for Sinatra before, by talking about how Sinatra didn’t have to be before or after the beat. This is an idea that Nelson really taps into on this number, riding the beat with a cool unconcern.
“I’ll Be Around” is a bit hard to take. As charming as Nelson’s disregard for professionalism might me, this takes it a little far, as Nelson’s singing of the title line sounds something like a toddler struggling through A-B-C’s. At some point, in this division between “authenticity” and “skill,” you have to just say, “Come on!” “Night and Day” is a song that sounds especially poignant in Nelson’s voice, as the simple, whimsical, and unaffected refrain of “Night and day, you are the one,” seems arguably more convincing in a country voice. When you’re away from the city and all its distractions, you have time to gawk at the stars and the sun, and reflect about such things, and it comes across in Nelson’s barebones delivery. Norah Jones shows up for “What Is This Thing Called Love,” and it strikes as a bit strange. Jones somehow became absolutely huge by rehashing an age-old, vaguely jazz-oriented style of music that found its way into hearts because of its comfortable familiarity. It’s total coffee mug, minivan, “Let’s not get too dangerous” fare. On one hand, you could see this collaboration as compromising the album, but on the other, remember that he’s covering Sinatra songs. Norah Jones is very much in the same spirit and style of Sinatra, so this is actually just perfect, making things all the more cohesive.
The album culminates with the title track, and leaves you with a definitive idea of what this album is. Consider that Paul Anka, the writer of “My Way,” commented that his favorite version of the song he had seen was that of Sid Vicious, of the Sex Pistols. People who write songs that convey certain feelings are generally more concerned with the effective expression of those feelings than you’d be inclined to assume, given the rather absurd genre compartmentalization of popular music. Willie Nelson is someone who has always done it his way, and this album serves as a massive, emphatic reminder of that. If it’s not to your liking, oh well. He did it his way. And you have to give him credit for that, because it weren’t for that, you probably wouldn’t have liked him in the first place.
“My Way” is available Sept. 14 on Apple Music.