Willie Nelson has written some of the most chilling, bluntly honest portrayals of the anguish of separation and the shock of finding oneself suddenly alone. With his second Atlantic album, Nelson attempts one of the most ambitious country projects ever: a concept album on the subject of breaking up. Ordinarily, concept albums strike me as pretentious bores (someone will call this one “the Sgt. Pepper of C&W,” “the shitkicker’s Tommy“), but I find Phases And Stages extraordinarily convincing. The oft-married Nelson has obviously seen his share of redeyed dawns.
One song — “I Still Can’t Believe You’re Gone” (which must be the single from the album) — is without doubt the saddest, most compelling C&W song I’ve ever heard. The sadness of the lyrics is echoed in Nelson’s voice, which is as bare and desolate as the monochromatic West Texas plains.
On Phases And Stages, Nelson describes a separation, first from the woman’s point of view (side one), then from the man’s (side two). Both are true to the milieu in which Nelson works: The woman runs away, finds another, but still wonders; the man loses himself in self-pity and then assumes the facade of honky-tonk bravado. Nelson can make a banal line like “ironing and crying, crying and ironing” say much more than it does on the surface. He seems to understand an unloved woman better than any dozen articles from Ms.: “If guilt is the question/Then truth is the answer/I’ve been lyin’ to me all along.” His deceptively simple lyrics fit whole chapters into single lines: “Sister’s comin’ home/Momma’s gonna let her sleep the whole day long/Mirror’s gonna tell her/Just how long she’s been gone.” And when “sister” goes back to the corner beer joint, “her jeans fit a little bit tighter than they did before.”
The fact that Nelson can fashion a believable scenario with such sparseness is a tribute to his ability to turn experience into good music. Phases And Stages, his best work to date, now seems to call out for the filmmaker who can turn good music into good cinema.