Teatro

Nearing seventy with a golfer's grace and a con man's poker face, Willie Nelson never sweats the technique. He has so much music in his soul that he doesn't need to strain, winging it with a voice that creaks like your favorite back-porch floorboard. Like his only peer, Dolly Parton, he still writes amazing songs well past the age when most great country singers send their producers to shop for Nashville song-factory discounts. In the Nineties, Willie's not settling for his role as an American treasurehe's still knocking off great albums, like 1995's overlooked Just One Love. On Teatro, he gets the Daniel Lanois treatment, singing old, new, borrowed and blue tunes amid Lanois' big drums and murky echo. As usual, Lanois overdoes the schlock atmospherics, but like Bob Dylan on Time Out of Mind, Nelson is earthy enough to keep Lanois in line; Nelson can always use a pushy drummer to nudge him along, and his light touch is exactly what Lanois needs.

Teatro peaks with the new original "Everywhere I Go," where Willie makes a pledge of unhinged devotion over Latin guitar, slapped drums and Wurlitzer burblesit's the senior-citizen sequel to Fastball's "The Way." As does most of the album, "Everywhere I Go" highlights the harmony vocals of Emmylou Harris. Too many tracks spill over into bombast, with Lanois' own "The Maker" the buttugliest offender, but most of Teatro is just Willie quietly breaking your heart with his easygoing intensity. Only Willie Nelson could make you believe in "I've Just Destroyed the World," a trifle he wrote more than thirty years ago, and it sums up his achievement on Teatro in classic Big Willie style, he sounds as though he's reaching out for salvation with one hand and pressing the snooze button with the other.