After the success of Santana’s Supernatural, it seems like every aging music legend is trying to reinvigorate his sound by teaming up with young, popular musicians. The Great Divide, the newest release by Willie Nelson, attempts to employ this strategy. The album pairs Nelson with a parade of today’s younger stars, including Kid Rock, Brian McKnight and Lee Ann Womack — but for the most part, the duets come off as awkward and artificial.
Instead of blending Nelson’s style with that of younger artists, the album attempts to force him into contrived, overproduced tracks in which his honest and aging voice sounds out of place. In spite of this, The Great Divide is not a complete failure. Nelson shines on the seven solo tracks of the album, proving that his compelling and unadorned style still succeeds, without support from today’s newest hit-makers.
The album starts with the refreshing and candid song “Maria (Shut Up and Kiss Me),” written by Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20, but quickly goes downhill with a series of unimpressive duets. In “Mendocino County Line” and “Be There For You,” with Lee Ann Womack and Sheryl Crow respectively, studio effects drown out the artists and give the songs an insincere, pop-ish feeling.
“Last Stand In Open Country,” Nelson’s duet with Kid Rock, while not as painful as one might imagine, is uneven and inconsistent. Kid Rock’s interludes don’t mix well with Nelson’s vocals, and the transitions between the artists are harsh and sometimes unexpected. The mediocre duets continue later in the album, with the syrupy “Don’t Fade Away,” with Brian McKnight and the second-rate “You Remain,” with Bonnie Raitt. Overall, the duets on The Great Divide lack coherence and unity; the artists work against each other or independently more often than they work together.
Fortunately, Nelson’s stellar solo work breaks up the series of unimpressive duets and provides the album with a number of memorable moments. Despite his age, Nelson continues to offer up songs that are astonishingly profound and heartfelt.
“The Great Divide,” the only song on the album penned by Nelson himself, provides much-needed relief from the overly upbeat and polished tone of the early album. The song’s sincere and contemplative character matches well with Nelson’s stark and powerful voice, while allowing him to exploit the wisdom of his many years.
Nelson also scores with the more upbeat and arrogant “Just Dropped In.” After the reflective tone of “The Great Divide,” Nelson makes it clear that he has not lost his rebellious and energetic attitude; he can still play with more confidence and force than most artists half his age. Even “Time After Time,” a cover of the Cyndi Lauper hit, has its strong points. Nelson’s version is more private than the original, and he transforms the classic lyrics into an uncomplicated account of personal devotion.
On The Great Divide, Willie Nelson proves that as a solo artist, he has become neither outdated nor unoriginal. At the same time, his duets with younger artists fail miserably, emerging more as studio creations that as the honest and simple songs for which he is best known. The Great Divide is a misguided attempt to refresh and modernize Willie Nelson’s style, which stills stands strong on its own.