It’s difficult to get a handle on Willie Nelson’s new album. From its title to its celestial cover to the medley which concludes the record, it seems arbitrary, confused and just a little bit spacey. In certain ways it is no great departure from his pathbreaking work of the last few years. It is not a thematically unified album, like Phases and Stages and Red Headed Stranger, but then I am not sure if that approach has ever altogether worked except as a framework for the songs Nelson cares about, both his own and, particularly in the case of this and the last album, the work of others as well.
The sparse instrumentation (piano, two guitars, bass, drums, harmonica) is the same as on the last album and certainly suits Willie’s laconic style. Even the song selection, while giving us only one new Willie Nelson composition, would appear to be exemplary enough from a listing of titles alone. “That Lucky Old Sun (Just Rolls around Heaven All Day)” is an enterprising choice to lead off an album still nominally country. “Amazing Grace” touches every Southern Baptist’s roots. Lefty Frizzell’s “If You’ve Got the Money I’ve Got the Time,” enjoying a revival of sorts among honky-tonk traditionalists, is done up in rollicking fashion. The eight-and-a-half-minute medley consists of three of Willie Nelson’s finest compositions, “Crazy,” “Night Life” and the classic “Funny How Time Slips Away.”
What seems to have gone wrong? Well, for one thing, with the exception of the Lefty Frizzell tune, nearly every song comes out sounding like a dirge, and the persistent, depressingly drab tone of track after track seems almost perverse. From this point of view I find the first side as a whole almost unlistenable, although individually each of the songs has merit. The Steve Fromholz composition, “I’d Have to Be Crazy,” proves a perfect vehicle for the wryly plaintive melancholy of Nelson’s voice.
The Sound in Your Mind lacks any consistent sense of purpose. What, for example, is the point of a lengthy, rambling and literal-minded version of a song as familiar as “Amazing Grace”? The ragged chorus, the dogged repetition, the almost coyly antiseptic piano only contribute to the impression that the song is being treated as a kind of goof, although this is the sort of deeply felt standard which Willie Nelson has brought vividly to life in the past. The same purposelessness plagues two of side one’s more familiar-sounding songs, “A Penny for Your Thoughts” and Nelson’s own “The Healing Hands of Time.” They are well crafted, singer and band are comfortable with the material, but, in sharp contrast to Red Headed Stranger, the music has no edge. Even “The Sound in Your Mind,” the one new song Nelson contributed to the album, maintains a kind of aimlessness which carries paradox so far as to be almost precious. Although I like the song very much, I wonder how much further such cleverness can go.
Finally, there is a musical question. Willie Nelson has never been exactly noted for his musicianship. In fact, his career can be seen as a triumph over classical strictures and requirements. A singer with strong adenoidal tendencies, he has always had problems with time and intonation, problems which, as he has sung more and with greater confidence, have diminished but never disappeared. Nonetheless, he is a great singer whose voice has the cutting edge of Hank Williams’s or Bob Dylan’s. As a guitarist he is equally distinctive and equally limited, and it is only in the last few years that he has taken to playing lead in his hard-edged, somewhat tentative but emotion-laden way. I’ve never felt his musicianship was a hindrance to him before, any more than Dylan’s has been to his own best work, but after listening to the medley which brings this album to a jarring close, I’m not so sure.
The treatment which Willie Nelson accords to three of his finest songs would most kindly be dismissed as misguided if anyone else had tried the same thing. Why the three are linked in the first place is something of a mystery. Why they appear in the form they do is even more puzzling. Willie Nelson has chopped up the melody of each song with jagged guitar phrases which sound like T-Bone Walker modulations gone wild. These phrases totally disrupt any establishment of mood, there is none of the fluidity of the jazzlike improvisation they seem to be aiming for, and they serve only to distract from the lyric and emotional content of each song. There is no question that they are seriously intended, for the tempo changes, the sudden shift in “Night Life” into almost mocking blues-band clichés, the interplay between the two guitars, all are carefully worked out. It’s hard to understand, though, what Willie Nelson is up to here, unless it’s to say that as an artist he can take his music anywhere he chooses, that formal rules and formal requirements have little to do with the instinctive feel of his music.
In this he’s right, but The Sound in Your Mind is, I believe, misconceived. I also believe that with an artist of Willie Nelson’s stature you always extend the benefit of the doubt. So I’ll go on listening to the album, and I am, of course, open to the possibility that its harmless eccentricity will continue to grow on me. I doubt it, though. The Sound in Your Mind is simply not the cohesive masterpiece that Willie Nelson’s last two albums have been. It lacks the breadth, the direct accessibility, the combination of myth and mystery of Red Headed Stranger and Phases and Stages. It marks a quiescent point in the career of a great artist who is still developing.