Look up the word prolific in the dictionary and don’t be surprised if you see a picture of Willie Nelson illustrating the definition. We’re kidding of course, but considering the fact that this true American master just turned 81 a couple of months ago, his pace of activity continues to be a something of a marvel, mostly surpassing that of artists who are often a third his age. The fact that this is Nelson’s fourth album in a little over two years attests to that prowess. Indeed, over the years, it’s been his habit to release multiple albums within months of each other, making a new Willie Nelson album a wholly expected occurrence.
While in some cases familiarity might breed contempt, Band of Brothers ups the ante by focusing primarily on Nelson’s own compositions for the first time since Spirit in 1996. That’s something to celebrate, especially considering all the songs (“Crazy,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Night Life” et. al.) that have become verifiable standards over the past 50 years. Here again, Nelson adds any number of potential additions to that revered canon, addressing the subjects of love, loyalty, restlessness and wandering with the same honesty and determination that’s become so essential to his signature stance. The formidable “Bring It On,” “The Wall” and “Band of Brothers” reaffirm his sturdy assurance, a defining posture more or less summed up by the latter’s telling reprise: “We’re a band of brothers and sisters and whatever/On a mission to break all the rules…”
Nevertheless, it’s the goofy testament to fooling around and playing the field, “Wives and Girlfriends,” that might seize immediate attention. Hoping that the twain never shall meet, he goes on to either praise or chastise his previous mates, reaffirming his image as the ne’er do well more concerned with eluding respectability than embracing it in spite of its inevitability. And yet, for all the silliness and self-effacing nonsense — his cover of “Crazy Like Me” is another in a series of inevitable anthems about irresponsibility — it’s the tender ballads that makes the most impact, particularly those that have to do with romance and remorse such as “I Thought I Left You” and “Send Me a Picture.” For all his assertions about cutting loose and making madness, it’s the sentimental songs that speak to why he remains a musical treasure all these years on. Or, to quote from “The Songwriters,” a song that seems to size him up succinctly, “We’re heroes, we’re schemers we’re drunks and we’re dreamers.”
When it comes to weighing in on Willie, it can’t be stated any better.
– Lee Zimmerman