Published Feb 24, 2016Throughout his prolific 60-year career, Willie Nelson has never recorded an album quite like his latest. Skeptics will compare this new LP, titled Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin, both to his 2009 collection of songbook standards, American Classic (both are composed of covers and have plenty of jazzy moments) and to his 2013 duets album, To All the Girls… (especially because spirited songstress Sheryl Crow was featured on it and returns here). However, Gershwin is distinctive from both of those recent predecessors, and even more so from much of the sprawling, twangy repertoire that has made Nelson a star since the '70s.
Gershwin features a number of quirky, intriguing turns from Cyndi Lauper, who on paper couldn't seem further removed from this longtime country outlaw but in execution sounds just right. They sing the most wholesome of Gershwin songs, "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," in fitting back-and-forth fashion, and the playfulness of the pair's exchange is sure to win over even cynical listeners who might otherwise scoff at the near childish schmaltz of the lyrics or at Lauper's "gee whiz" tone (to be fair, her dewy-eyed delivery fits the song's content perfectly). The new duet with Crow here — "Embraceable You," another all-time Gershwin great — isn't as surreally unique as the Lauper collaboration, but its straightforward pleasures are equally laudable, as Crow's smouldering contribution proves to be a subtle counterpoint to Nelson's reedy voice.
Better still are the moments in which Nelson goes it alone, pushing his famed high voice in unexpected directions. On the jazzier tracks —the downbeat "But Not For Me," the jaunty "Somebody Loves Me" and especially "Love Is Here to Stay" — the Red Headed Stranger evokes Ol' Blue Eyes, especially on the latter, a Sinatra favourite. Those songs feature expected ba dum bum bass lines, but are gloriously thrown off kilter by Nelson's flamenco guitar licks and the Nashville-esque backing drum brush beats. Together, these elements make Gershwin one of the most subtly experimental albums in the octogenarian's storied discography, and a satisfying listen throughout. (Legacy)