Willie Nelson and Ray Charles are such monumental personalities that it almost doesn't matter what kinds of records they make. Each man ranks among the dozen or so pop legends who don't have to do much to please an audience beyond simply being themselves. But when they put in extra effort, as each singer does on his newest album, the results can be riveting.
For Across the Borderline, Nelson, who turned sixty in April, teamed up with producer Don Was for an album that seasons the singer's own brand of austere, hard-chugging country swing with echoes of everything from English art rock to Paul Simon's South African-flavored folk rock. These hybrids are remarkable for their lack of clutter and their ultimate fidelity to Nelson's plain-as-dirt sensibility. With the recent death of a son and his troubles with the IRS, Nelson has suffered more than his share of woe lately. These hard times can be felt both in the gravity of the songs and in singing whose true grit has acquired an extra twang of hard-bitten emotion.
The riskiest and most compelling of several star duets is Nelson's collaboration with Sinéad O'Connor, who becomes his trembling-voiced guardian angel on Peter Gabriel's "Don't Give Up." In "Heartland," which Nelson wrote with Bob Dylan, the two singers fulminate about the ongoing farm crisis and an "American dream" that "fell apart at the seams." For T.S. Bruton's acute breakup-and-recovery song, "Getting Over You," Nelson and Bonnie Raitt play an estranged couple viewing their troubled relationship from a vantage "where you can see how all the pieces fit as you watch them fall apart." On the album's great title song, in which Nelson is joined by Kris Kristofferson, the Rio Grande becomes not just a dividing line between haves and have-nots but a line between life and death and an elusive spiritual salvation. The album's two Paul Simon songs, "American Tune" and "Grace-land," both gain in stature from Nelson's plain-spoken versions.
A Paul Simon song — "Still Crazy After All These Years" — also happens to be a high point of Ray Charles's My World, an album that brings the sixty-two-year-old father of modern soul back from countrified pop to pop gospel. Produced by Richard Perry, who twenty years ago masterminded the entries by Barbra Streisand, Carly Simon, Ringo Starr and Harry Nilsson into the pop mainstream, My World takes the sound of Charles's best Sixties records and discreetly updates it by underlining the swelling gospel choruses with crisp, techno-improved beats.
Over the years, a benign, grandfatherly quality has crept into Charles's singing. In bringing this amused overview to "Still Crazy," Charles turns the Simon gem into a jubilant, frisky declaration of independence by a proud eccentric.
Charles puts a similar stamp on Leon Russell's "A Song for You," which is lushly arranged but cheerful and briskly paced. The album's deepest moment is Charles's ruminative version of "If I Could," a ballad sung by a father to a child, in which he bemoans not being able to keep away life's harsh realities. All he can offer, he laments, is a parent's devotion and "a shoulder to cry on." Charles's performance defines a quality that is all too lacking in contemporary music: true humility.