For whatever reason, Willie Nelson's Teatro -- like Emmylou Harris' Wrecking Ball -- seems to exist in a vacuum, completely set apart from his other recordings. It's untrue in either case, but especially in Nelson's. A scant year or so before Teatro was released -- and its recording sessions filmed in an old movie theater in Oxnard, California -- Nelson issued his most brilliant album of the 1990s, Spirit. Island's publicists had no idea what to do with Spirit's subtle, unsentimental, moody, and sparsely arranged and performed songs, but the roots of Teatro lie firmly planted there on its opening instrumental, "Matador." As for Teatro itself, Harris is present on 11 of the 14 tracks. In addition, Daniel Lanois, the same mercurial talent who spearheaded Wrecking Ball, produced this set. The mood is set in an arid space where a forlorn mariachi band meets the Harmonica Man (courtesy of Mickey Raphael) on Ennio Morricone's score for Once Upon a Time in the West. Lyrically, Nelson is as ambitious as he was on Spirit, and rhythmically he's more so, but that doesn't necessarily serve him as well. Teatro is a fine record with its sadness and bitterness in "I Never Cared for You" and the Spanish two-step of "Darkness on the Face of the Earth." But Lanois is one busy guitar picker here, and it stands at odds with Nelson's more spare yet lyrical style. But it's a good tension. It works better on "My Own Peculiar Way," with the percussion floating and evening out the guitars. The touch of Afro-Cuban rhythm in "These Lonely Nights" is sharp in contrast to Nelson's relatively staid and conventional country melody. Here is where Lanois works his magic; he staggers an organ, an electric piano, an accordion, his own electric guitar, a trap kit, and hand percussion all around the beat without anyone playing dead on it. Nelson's voice is the only constant, and it draws the listener right to it. Nelson's cover of Lanois' "The Maker," with Lanois layering thick slaps of sweet, melodic distorted guitar over its intro, is amazing. Harris and Nelson work so well together -- throughout the album but on this track especially -- it's almost a shock they aren't always together. Lyrically, Nelson strides out ahead of all his late-'80s and early-'90s material, continuing the great strides he made with Spirit. Clearly, the slump is over here, and the poetry he spins is accessible, profound, and moving. Teatro is a special album, but it's part two of a story that began with Spirit, and both recordings should be heard in tandem with one another for the full effect. Striking, beautiful, and affecting, Teatro is a sonic film that displays its moving images in the minds and hearts of its listeners.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek