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If Willie Nelson hadn’t fashioned himself into the artist he is over the course of thousands of performances and some hundred-plus albums, who could’ve dreamed him up? He’s been the epitome of consistency, each of his shows an easygoing epic, each album loosely held together by a narrative or stylistic thread, each project expanding on country’s troubadour tradition. And yet, he’s also the most capricious of musicians, willing to let himself be guided by his whims, so wily and jazz-bent in the phrasing of his vocals and guitar figures that trying to match his wavering rhythms is a fool’s errand.
On his rich, new album, God’s Problem Child, Nelson likewise attributes an incongruous range of qualities to the passage of time itself. Where some artists embrace somber, late-career meditations on mortality as a way to make a final case for their depth and burnish their legacies, at age 84, Nelson reflects on this season of his life with a mischievousness and equanimity that already feels familiar coming from him.
Bookending the album are songs that convey nostalgia for places and people: the gospelly country-blues romp “Little House on the Hill” — a first-time cut for songwriter Lyndel Rhodes, the nonagenarian mother of Nelson’s seasoned producer, Buddy Cannon, who’s been on quite the roll this year — and “He Won’t Ever Be Gone,” a twangy, Gary Nicholson-penned tribute to Nelson’s late peer and comrade, Merle Haggard.