After years of singing standards, putting out duet albums, starring in movies, appearing in soundtracks, and taking other detours, Willie Nelson finally returned with an album of (almost) all-new material with 1983's Tougher Than Leather, his first collection of original songs since 1975's Red Headed Stranger. Like that record, Tougher Than Leather is a concept record, but unlike Stranger, it's nearly impossible to figure out what the record is about. In all likelihood, it's about a gunfighter, who may or may not be a metaphor for Willie himself, in his last days, and there are four songs with "rose" in the title, two parts of "Somewhere in Texas," and a version of "Beer Barrel Polka" thrown in for good measure. Musically, it's right in the vein of Red Headed Stranger -- a little more robust, since it was cut with his touring band, which also leads to a greater variety of sounds, something that doesn't necessarily jibe with the intended intimacy of the songs, even if it's wholly welcome after the stilted Chips Moman productions. The problem with Tougher Than Leather is that the album simply doesn't hold together thematically, which wouldn't be a major problem if the songs were consistently good, but they're often too minimal to catch hold, with only the revived "Summer of Roses" (originally on Yesterday's Wine), "Little Old Fashioned Karma," and the elegiac "Nobody Slides, My Friend" standing out among the pack, and they're modest in their success as well. Consequently, Tougher Than Leather winds up being more admirable for what it tries to do than what it accomplishes.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine