First Appeared in The Music Box, November 2006, Volume 13, #11
Written by John Metzger
Though Songbird was released in Willie Nelsonís name, it truly is a collaboration between him and Ryan Adams. Given how prolific each has been on his own, itís frightening to consider the sheer volume of material that they might be able to produce as a duo. The problem, of course, is that neither Adams nor Nelson is able to determine the good ideas from the bad ones, and sometimes even their execution of a conceptually sound blueprint is flawed. Consequently, although there undoubtedly are some stunning highlights among both artistsí canons, their lack of restraint also has led them down some less than fruitful paths.
At first glance, Songbird seemed certain to fall into this latter category, and it might appear, particularly to Nelsonís fans, as if Adams had co-opted the project completely. In producing the album, Adams hired his backing band The Cardinals along with Ollabelleís Glenn Patscha and longtime Nelson associate Mickey Raphael to supply the music. Initially, the set feels like an uncomfortable merging of styles as Nelsonís frail and weary voice frequently has to battle the cascading waves of distortion that Adams applied to the material. Save for a pair of reworked gems from Nelsonís back catalogue (Yours Love and Sad Songs and Waltzes) and the newly penned Back to the Earth, Adams extends the atmospheric textures that Daniel Lanois had applied to Teatro, carrying the technique to such extremes that Nelson sometimes sounds out of his element.
Given time, however, Adams and Nelsonís divergent personalities begin to coalesce, and the songs gain greater traction as the duo finds the common ground between them. The Grateful Deadís Stella Blue, for example, bears a mood of devastated exhaustion, while Amazing Grace is transformed into a dark, swirling blues excursion from which little light can escape and little chance for redemption exists. Elsewhere, they ring the bittersweet beauty from the Fleetwood Mac tune that serves as the setís title track; Gram Parsonsí $1000 Wedding is cranked to an angst-filled, country-rock roar; Nelsonís We Donít Run is given a galloping gait; and Leonard Cohenís Hallelujah is stripped of its angelic grace and bent into a haunting overture. Songbird is, of course, a dramatic departure from Nelsonís other recent endeavor You Donít Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker, but although it isnít quite of the same caliber, it is one of the few moments in his career when thinking completely outside the box has produced something that is more than just a passing curiosity. Ĺ
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2006 The Music Box