Willie Nelson the songwriter reappears on “Band of Brothers,” his first album since 1996 to feature a majority of his own new songs. It’s a serenely feisty autumnal statement from the singer, who forged his sage, grizzled persona decades ago.
Nelson’s song “Funny How Time Slips Away” first appeared in 1961, and his relaxed, quavery, behind-the beat vocals and his acoustic lead guitar always made him a voice of maturity. The sly versatility of his style has allowed him to cruise through many albums of collaborations, covers and tributes to vintage country music. But “Band of Brothers” – with nine of its 14 songs written by Nelson and Buddy Cannon, the album’s producer – is set in the present.
At 81, Nelson has more right to be autumnal than ever. That doesn’t mean he’s retreating. The album starts with “Bring It On,” which begins, “They say there is no gain without pain / Well I must be gaining a lot / And I’ll give it all that I’ve got.” In “The Wall,” with electric-piano chords adding a touch of Fleetwood Mac to Nelson’s steadfast country, he sings about past mistakes and excesses that led him to “hit the wall” but continues, “and the wall came down, crashing down.”
Nelson sings about love – usually lost love – in songs like “I Thought I Left You,” a ballad smoldering with resentment about a protracted breakup, and in “Send Me a Picture,” a classic-style country waltz that he sings in a heartbroken near-whisper. The upbeat good-riddance song “Used to Her” notes, “I could have picked a woman who did not crave other men.” The jovial “Wives and Girlfriends” is a tall-tale chronicle of marriages and dalliances, wishing, “May they never meet.”
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And in “Guitar in the Corner,” Nelson merges thoughts of women and songwriting: “The guitar used to play / A happy song about a girl / loving me like I loved her / But the strings no longer ring / And things are not the way they were.”
Cannon’s restrained but ever-supportive production uses Nashville session players and harmonica player Mickey Raphael from Nelson’s band in his perpetual dialogue with Nelson’s vocals, while Nelson’s succinct lead guitar turns up regularly.
Nelson allows some bile in Billy Joe Shaver’s “Hard to Be an Outlaw,” which sneers at “songs about the back roads that they never have been down / They go and call it country but that ain’t the way it sounds.” But most of the album considers the lessons and scars of personal experience, looking back a long way but concluding, with its last song, “I’ve Got a Lot of Traveling to Do.”