In the wake of one of the most manufactured news stories of the year, when fans of Willie Nelson supposedly boycotted him for being politically outspoken, he released “My Way,” a decidedly neutral album of standards. The faux controversy illustrated how in our virtual world, a couple people angrily yelling into their keyboards can make national news. Hopefully some good will come out of this monumental waste of time, and people will listen to “My Way” now that Nelson’s name is the news again.
“My Way” marks the prolific 85 year-old’s second album of the year, his first being April’s “Last Man Standing.” Standards albums have been a part of Nelson’s repertoire since his 1978 landmark “Stardust,” but he brings a new twist on the concept. Nelson takes aim at the Frank Sinatra songbook on “My Way” and nails the wry sophistication that the Chairman of the Board is known for.
Sinatra and Nelson both made their names as outlaws. Sinatra’s wry sophistication that made him the face of cool for many, with his perfectly tailored suits and lavash casino parties. Despite his massive success, his mafia ties established the singer as a mainstream star with a foot in the underground. Nelson is the face of the outlaw country movement, a backlash against the commercial Nashville sound that dominated the time.
The big band instrumentals on the album are much more Sinatra than Nelson, as Nelson’s trademark classical guitar “trigger” is nestled in the background instead of being a focal point. The arrangements, by Chris McDonald, Matt Rollings and Kristen Wilkinson, provide a solid background for Nelson’s gruff vocals. Unfortunately, the studio polish, though pleasant, takes away one of the greatest parts of Nelson’s music: his rawness.
His 2016 standards album, “Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin,” succeeded due to the stripped-down setting, with many songs featuring Nelson on guitar accompanied by a small backing band instead of a full orchestra. The cozier setting of “Summertime” fits Nelson like a glove, as he always sounds best when sitting in the middle ground between the cosmopolitan and the down home. Although Nelson’s vocals are not subpar by any means, a simpler setting allows the subtlety of his delivery to shine through better than on this 35-minute album. Here, Nelson’s more orchestral sound is more in line with Sinatra’s classic late ‘50s concept albums, when arrangers like Nelson Riddle created some of the best pop songs put on wax.
Despite minor misgivings, “My Way” is a touching tribute to an American icon. Nelson may not sound like Sinatra, but he does not need to. They share an honesty that shines through and is part of why both of them make standards shine in a way that many singers have attempted and failed to emulate.
3.5 stars out of 5