Norah Jones and company were in well over their heads trying to cover Hank Williams, Townes van Zandt, Gram Parsons, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson all on one album, but their “aw, shucks” pose and able musicianship made it a tough record not to love. The Little Willies benefited from a complete lack of pretense, so it’s all the more tragic that their namesake’s collaboration with Ryan Adams, Songbird, collapses under the weight of laziness and hubris. Adams has been in top form lately—last year’s Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Nights silenced most of the post-Heartbreaker haters—and Shotgun Willie sounded as grand as ever on this year’s album-length tribute to Cindy Walker, You Don’t Know Me. So there’s no excuse for this travesty of a record.
Songbird sounds like—I shit you not—a jam session between the Jayhawks and Wesley Willis. Adams’s affected production brings on the gospel choirs and delay-pedaled lap steels so heavily that it’s nearly impossible to detect a melody in any of the instrumentation. And Nelson gives his weakest vocal performance to date, slurring through Fleetwood Mac’s “Songbird” and Gram Parsons’s “$1000 Wedding” like a drunk in a karaoke bar. If you’ve ever seen Nelson perform live, you know that his unapologetic skewering of tempo and rhythm is largely what makes his vocals and guitar solos so compelling. But on Songbird, it doesn’t sound like Nelson is deconstructing his lines to make them his own; it sounds like he’s looking at them for the first time.
Perhaps if the record pulled back a little bit on the bombast, Songbird might have felt as breezy and light as You Don’t Know Me or as punch-drunk and bouncy as Cold Roses. But you can’t sound casual with an eight-person choir hollering “Hallelujah” and “Amazing Grace” behind you or an arrangement of “$1000 Wedding” that’s more My Bloody Valentine than “My Own Peculiar Way.” Songbird just sounds ridiculous, though not quite as ridiculous as Nelson’s 2005 reggae album Countryman. The unfortunate choice in covers doesn’t help matters, as these songs have been recorded and rerecorded better dozens of times over. The best tracks are the new numbers: Adams’s “Blue Hotel,” which seems better suited for Adams himself, and Nelson’s “Back To Earth,” which is a lovesick outlaw ballad by the guy who wrote the book on how to write lovesick outlaw ballads. It’s no “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” or anything, but it gets the job done.
Something has always struck me as patronizing about the pairing of youngsters with country-music greats. Does Jack White really make Loretta Lynn more “relevant”? Would anyone really rather hear Johnny Cash singing with Fiona Apple than with June Carter? Even so, I’ve been anticipating the mash-up of two of my favorite songwriters since Lost Highway announced Songbird months ago, and it’s an enormous disappointment. I never thought I’d say it, but when is Willie Nelson going to work with Toby Keith again?