Arriving as it does amidst of flurry of similarly themed songbook albums — from Rod Stewart to Paul McCartney to Jeff Lynne — Let’s Face the Music and Dance reminds us of Willie Nelson’s age-old command of the genre.
Dating back to his 1978 triumph Stardust (released over label objections as a kind of tribute to the recently fallen Bing Crosby) and continuing through to more recent efforts like 2009′s American Classic, Nelson has shown an uncanny ability to translate these often dusty old gems. The same goes for Let’s Face the Music, due April 16, 2013, from Legacy Recordings, as the erstwhile country outlaw once again applies his subtle and deeply emotional vocal style — set among these tasteful flourishes of Spanish-tinged guitar — to tracks from the likes of Irving Berlin (the title track, “Marie”), Frank Loesser (“I Wish I Didn’t Love You So”), Mack Gordon (“You’ll Never Know”) and Al Nevins (on the perfectly calibrated new take on “Twilight Time”), among others.
There are all manner of quirks and feints that give these tracks a new life, not least of which is their stripped-down presentation — one that leaves aside the goopy strings usually associated with such projects, even while it provides a sharper-edged spotlight for his angular solos.
Then, Nelson offers a series of offbeat surprises with the material, not least of which is the original “Is the Better Part Over,” a melancholy rumination that recalls his devastatingly effective divorce-themed 1974 songcycle Phases and Stages. Elsewhere, Nelson lets loose on a chugging version of Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox,” then offers a gorgeously detailed examination of Django Reinhardt’s gypsy romanticism on “Nuages.”
All of this follows a string of robust recent successes for the now 80-year-old Texas troubadour, starting with 1996′s Spirit and continuing through 1998′s Teatro, 2002′s The Great Divide, 2009′s Willie and the Wheel, as well as last year’s Heroes. With Let’s Face the Music and Dance, Nelson’s stirring third-act renaissance continues.