The pairing of Ryan Adams and his band the Cardinals with Willie Nelson may seem a tad odd, but Nelson has always had a penchant for the unusual and extraordinary; from Plácido Domingo to Leon Russell, Nelson enjoys working with others in collaboration. That said, Songbird is a collaboration of a different sort, and it most resembles -- in feel, not sound -- the work Nelson did with Daniel Lanois on Teatro: loose, relaxed, adventuresome. In essence, Nelson allowed Adams to produce him using the Cardinals, and a couple of Nelson's sidemen, harmonica player Mickey Raphael and Glenn Patscha on Hammond B-3. This is Nelson singing electric rock and blues. While that may read like it would be a travesty, it actually accounts for Nelson's best record since Teatro. His easy delivery, contrasted with Adams wiry production, creates an emotionally honest, deeply moving recording with the best traits of both men shining forth. Nelson wrote four tracks on this set, Adams wrote two, and the selection of covers -- "Songbird" by Christine McVie, Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter's "Stella Blue," Gram Parsons' "$1,000 Wedding," and Harlan Howard's "Yours, Love" -- is stellar.
Opening with Nelson's "Rainy Day Blues," featuring Raphael and Adams in deep blues counterpoint, Willie seems to take energy from the ban; finding a slippery sense of time in the verses, he walks between the instrumentalists. It's an unlikely opener but a fine one. Christine McVie's classic title track, originally appearing on Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, has been utterly reinvented here. The band, in full jangle mood, Nelson sounding decades younger than his 73 years, make this a hungry song, one that pledges to the beloved in absentia, writing a letter and pouring out his heart to the woman he desires. The guitars sting and slither in the breaks. Adams' "Blue Hotel" follows and is the mirror image of the title cut. This is the road-weary, lonesome protagonist strolling aimlessly and forlornly; he's raw and confused and the song is the only outlet for expressing his desolation. A chorus of backing vocalists enters the tune on the final refrains and takes it over the top. It's devastatingly beautiful. Turning Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," into a country waltz is no mean feat, but Nelson and Adams strip away all the overblown intensity the song has been imbued with in the past by others and states it matter of factly. There are some wonderfully understated sound effects and again a choir picking up the refrains and a pedal steel guitar leading the changes as the band helps the singer through the tune. Adams and band had to adjust to Nelson's rollicking style of performance-oriented songwriting on his "We Don't Run," that spits and struts and glides by like a tour bus on the highway in the night. The haunting reading of "Amazing Grace" that closes the set is almost an Adams' nod to Lanois' liberal interpretations of traditional songs. The band all centers around the B-3, and Nelson sings in counterpoint, reinventing the melody. His protagonist is standing on the verge of the abyss between life and death and has the sobering enlightenment that grace comes only when it is granted unexpectedly. Ultimately, Nelson is at a peak here; he's had many and hopefully there will be many more -- God knows we need him -- and Adams' understated, true-to-the-song production leads us to hope for more of this from him. Songbird is a late-year surprise, and a stunner from top to bottom.