* * * Willie Nelson, “Teatro,” Island.
“Teatro” opens with a melancholy guitar-keyboard meditation, and the first words Nelson sings on the album are, “The sun is filled with ice and gives no warmth at all.” The music might eventually thaw with the odd arrival of catchy, Caribbean-flavored percussion, but the lyrics remain preoccupied with loss, heartbreak and worse--revisiting his morbid 1965 single “I Just Can’t Let You Say Goodbye,” Nelson sings of killing his ex-lover.
This is Willie in the House of Daniel--Daniel Lanois, that is, the producer-musician who specializes in late-career transfigurations for wayward once-great artists. “Teatro” is no “Time Out of Mind,” Lanois’ 1997 Bob Dylan milestone, but it peps Nelson up considerably after the solemn austerity of “Spirit,” his self-produced predecessor.
Lanois applies his signature atmospherics to the minimalist, roots-cum-experimental sound, and his infatuation with cheery Latin beats that are wildly incompatible with the lyrics creates an eerie, David Lynch-like sense of disassociation.
Nelson (frequently abetted by Emmylou Harris’ background vocals) doesn’t always seem at home in this world. Some arrangements confine his fluid phrasing, and at times he simply sounds as if he’s along for the ride. When Lanois defers to his client--most notably on the classic-sounding ballad “Home Motel"--Nelson stretches into the contours of the lyrics’ sorrow like the master vocalist he is.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).