The thing about Willie Nelson’s albums—and Nelson himself has admitted as much—is that he can get away with an occasional bomb because he’s so prolific. Including his collaborations, like 2006’s Last of the Breed, and official live recordings, Nelson’s name has been on more than 20 albums since 2000. The problem with this approach is that his apparent contempt for quality control—for every exemplary album like You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker, there are a couple of ill-conceived projects like Rainbow Connection and The Dukes of Hazzard—makes it damn near impossible to take Nelson seriously anymore, and the sheer volume of pure, unadulterated crap the Red-Headed Stranger has released in the latter half of his career undermines his status as an icon both within and beyond the country genre.
Many genre veterans have, in their later years, teamed up with unconventional producers to record work that revitalizes and recontextualizes their careers: Johnny Cash with Rick Rubin, Loretta Lynn with Jack White, and Porter Wagoner with Marty Stuart, to choose the most artistically compelling examples. For his latest album, Moment of Forever, Nelson takes the opposite approach, choosing to work with Kenny Chesney and his cohort, Buddy Cannon, on an album intended to reassert Nelson’s mainstream relevance. The result isn’t quite as stupefying as his fusion of country and reggae on 2005’s The Countryman, but Moment is a fiasco nonetheless.
Moment proves that Chesney’s instincts as a producer are about as sharp as his instincts as a singer, with his and Cannon’s garish bombast fundamentally at odds with the subtlety and grace that make an in-form Nelson such a captivating singer-songwriter. The album’s few moments of restraint—“I’m Alive” could almost pass for a classic Nelson cut, if not for its message of unthinking, dead-eyed optimism, courtesy of Chesney of course, being diametrically opposed to the content of Nelson’s best songs—are far outweighed by grotesque flourishes like the fake pirate flute on “The Bob Song” and the shrill, soulless brass sections on “Taking on Water” and a terrible cover of Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody.” The album just sounds awful, like the imitation of ‘80s yacht rock that passes for much of mainstream country, and far too few of the stylistic choices here play to Nelson’s strengths or demonstrate any real knowledge of his place within the genre’s pantheon. Considering his own catalogue, it’s tempting to blame Chesney’s exceptionally poor taste for the album’s shortcomings, but it’s not like he walked into the recording studio uninvited.
At a time when so many country artists—both newcomers and veterans, mainstream and independent acts—are recording music that is as captivating and challenging as Shotgun Willie, Stardust, and “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” for Nelson to continue to release such sub-par work on such a regular basis is a real shame. An artist of Nelson’s stature should, by right, always be an essential listen. But Moment of Forever is yet another album that makes it easier and easier to take a pass on Nelson’s new work, and that undermines rather than furthers his legacy.