68 albums into his career, Willie Nelson can do whatever he wants. On My Way, his second album of 2018, all he wants to do is sing the classics and pay tribute to his old friend Frank Sinatra. In an interview with Variety magazine earlier this year, he observed that the Great American Songbook, the source of many of the songs he covers here, is a “deep well because good songs never die… if it was good a hundred years ago, it’s still good today.” Nelson certainly draws from some classics here, performing songs by writers such as Johnny Mercer, the Gershwins, Rodgers & Hart, and Cole Porter, and it is largely the undying appeal of those songs that carries a lot of the charm of this album.
The arrangements of the songs don’t stray far from how they are usually performed, which is mostly to say in a gentle jazz style, perfect for pairing with a clear glass of high-shelf whiskey. You almost expect to hear ice clinking in the glasses of the invisible audience. This, of course, means the music is very listenable in a relaxing, undemanding way, but it doesn’t make for an album that necessarily feels essential. Besides the familiar jazz interpretation of the songs—to be fair, they also frequently incorporate country-western touches of nimble guitar work and a plaintive harmonica—Nelson’s voice falls in volume just below the music in a way that often makes you think that was done on purpose to camouflage his lack of Sinatra-esque vocals. Nelson has never been a belter, and that is fine, but at some points here the natural wavering in his voice feels more fragile than before, particularly on the opener “Fly Me to The Moon,” which always sounds a bit better when performed with a robust, soaring quality that can mirror the exciting romanticism of the song.
However, the Nelson charm does certainly show itself throughout the album, making up for any shortcomings that might have weighed down a lesser artist. Most songs follow a similar arrangement here, featuring various combinations of piano, jazz drums, some horns, harmonica, Nelson’s guitar and a lengthy instrumental break towards the end of the song. This again makes up for Nelson’s lack of vocal power, and it proves effective because hearing his playful additions to “Fly Me To the Moon” and wistful moments in “Summer Wind” really reminds you why you enjoy listening to Willie Nelson in the first place.
While his ripe age of 85 may contribute to the focus on music over vocals, it also adds an emotional layer that isn’t often found in these songs (maybe just because there are not many 85-year old performers in general still recording music, the sample size is small). “It Was a Very Good Year,” always haunting and achingly nostalgic becomes something a little deeper here. Hearing someone who is 85 reminisce about when they were 17 and 21 is more striking than hearing someone who is, say, in their 40s singing about when they were 17 and 21 when it sounds as if they are just having a mild mid-life crisis. “Young at Heart” is similarly effective because it takes on the spirit of an elderly relative or friend passing down lessons to you. A middle-aged singer might just sound as if they are missing the youth they just recently lost, while Nelson sounds like someone who knows—from decades of experience—that being young at heart is important for a long, healthy life.
Finally, the album closes with “My Way.” It’s hard to really mess this song up because the bones of it are just so good, so it is maybe the best song on the album. Unlike the other songs—but like almost all renditions of “My Way”—it begins quietly, with Nelson’s voice the focus. This choice is effective, and Nelson’s delivery of the first line, “and now the end is near,” hits you like a splash of cold water after such a relatively jaunty album. The song doesn’t build to the climax it often does, but his delivery is sweet, nimble and wise enough to still make it a fine addition to the collection of “My Way” covers.
The album isn’t an essential record, but it is warm and skilled enough to listen to if you appreciate the “Great American Songbook” as much as Nelson does. Most all of us have heard these songs sung by countless artists before, and Nelson doesn’t add anything new to what we’ve heard, but he does add himself; and if you’re a fan of Nelson that will probably be just enough.