Credit: John Shearer/Getty
by Josh Hurst Music Rooted & Restless

Willie Nelson | That’s Life

March 15, 2021

While Willie Nelson boasts a pretty high floor and That’s Life is indeed a pleasant enough listen, it’s the also the songwriter’s least essential album in the past decade.

With That’s Life, Willie Nelson finds himself two albums deep into a cycle of Frank Sinatra cover songs. Assuming he’s following the model set out by his old pal Bob Dylan, we might expect a triple-LP follow-up within a matter of months… or is that a glib comparison? After all, Nelson has been an enthusiastic champion of the Great American Songbook — sometimes at real risk to his own (commercial) standing in the outlaw country movement — at least as far back as 1978, and he’s been a singer of impeccable phrasing for even longer. More to the point, his jaunts through Sinatra’s canon have been markedly different in feel from Dylan’s: Rather than haunted deconstructions, Willie’s 2018 album My Way offered smooth-talking charm and conversational updates on some of the Chairman’s old warhorses. That’s Life offers more of the same — or, perhaps, a bit less. On the surface, it scans very much like a sequel; Willie still indulges in Songbook staples that are mostly quite familiar, still indulges in the occasional swell of brass and strings too, but mostly relies on the nimble swing of his touring band. And swing is the operative word here: Even more than My Way, That’s Life hones in on a version of Sinatra at his most garrulous and carefree.

The biggest issue with that approach here is that, at age 87, Willie is really starting to exhibit some significant vocal deterioration. He can still summon plenty of warmth and charisma (listen to him turn the melodrama of “Cottage for Sale” into something achingly plainspoken), but just as often, his craggy voice sounds at odds with the material’s intended effervescence. Even if you chalk that up as part of the album’s charm — a reasonable enough take — it doesn’t change the sense that the album is a little perfunctory, whereas its predecessor often felt genuinely galvanizing. Willie and his band hit all their marks here, right down to a duet with Diana Krall and a brassy, floor-show take on “You Make Me Feel So Young.” Not much, however, is done to contextualize or interrogate these songs — beyond the demonstration of Nelson’s obvious affection for them. That’s Life is a sufficient, perfectly pleasant companion — but also one of the least essential Willie Nelson albums of the past decade.

Published as part of Album Roundup — February 2021 | Part 2.