Album Reviews

Willie Nelson – The Border

(Legacy) UK release date: 31 May 2024

Country legend’s 75th studio album demonstrates his enduring ability to craft profound and relatable narratives through song

Willie Nelson - The Border Produced by Willie’s longtime collaborator Buddy Cannon, The Border is Willie Nelson’s 75th studio album. Four of the album’s tracks are penned by Nelson and Cannon, while the remaining half dozen are carefully curated from some of their favourite songwriters, including two contributions from Rodney Crowell, as well as pieces from Shawn Camp, Mike Reid, and Bobby Tomberlin.

The album is backed by some of Nashville’s finest musicians, ensuring that it is nothing short of an instant hit, much like their previous album of similar material, A Beautiful Time, which won Best Country Album at the 2023 Grammys (and fully deserved it). Being a fan of Willie Nelson is truly a remarkable undertaking – he has over a hundred full-length releases to dig in to, and has periods – much like the last five years – where everything he touches turns to gold. His run from 1973’s Shotgun Willie to 1980’s Family Bible is the single greatest run in country music ever, encompassing Christmas albums, soundtracks, concept albums and family collaborations. If you’re new to Willie – start there. You could write a book about how great that run was. 

The album’s opening track, The Border, sets the tone for the journey ahead, showcasing Nelson’s refined take on Crowell and Allen Shamblin’s 2019 original. For longtime listeners, it’ll sound similar to the great work he was doing in the 90s, which – if you needed reminding – was a quarter of a century ago. Most notably, its desolate and sparse Morricone vibes conjure the ghosts of two of his very finest works – Spirit and Teatro. 

Next, Once Upon A Yesterday – a Willie Nelson original – invites listeners into a nostalgic space, where Willie excels (and he always has). He’s the master of conjuring a special kind of intimate nostalgia, where listeners need know nothing about the ideas or topics he’s discussing but can feel fully immersed in them. What If I’m Out Of My Mind – another original – takes a bit more existential approach, and invites jokes about his legendary cannabis consumption, but is actually tender and genuinely moving.

When I Wrote This Song For You (he didn’t, ironically) provides more subtlety, by allowing Nelson’s exceptional gift for conveying sincerity to shine. In contrast, Kiss Me When You’re Through provides a playful break from the album’s weighty themes, and might be the best of the Nelson-penned songs on the album.

Many A Long And Lonesome Highway revs up the country vibes, as Nelson shares the trials and tribulations of life on the road by borrowing a 1989 Rodney Crowell original. Hank’s Guitar is a tip of the hat to Hank Williams and his guitar, while Made In Texas celebrates Nelson’s Lone Star State pride – both clear indications that the material here has been carefully curated, regardless of whose pen it came from. The earnest Nobody Knows Me Like You and rather striking How Much Does It Cost close out the album with a thoughtful reflection on life’s choices and consequences – as though Willie hasn’t been asking these same questions for the past 60 years.

Overall, The Border is an exquisite collection of tracks that not only emphasises Nelson’s artistic longevity (he’s 91) but also demonstrates his enduring ability to craft or convey profound and relatable narratives through song. It’s not his best album (that honour goes to 1998’s Teatro, 1996’s Spirit or 1974’s Phases and Stages), or even in the tier below that, but what it does is provide comfortable, comforting sounds for longtime fans to enjoy, and new listeners – if there are new listeners at this point – to get stuck into. He’s made so many great albums that landing in the Top 20 at this point is a win.

If this is Willie’s last album (and he’s probably got another ten already locked and loaded, ready to go), then it’s a fitting capstone to a legendary career. If it’s not his last, then let’s hope he keeps running with the same team and the same formula because the results are always great.

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