Before the release of the shockingly good Across the Borderline, Willie Nelson was just on the verge of turning into a sad pop-culture joke: a 59-year-old hitless hippie who’d become more of an outlaw for his run-ins with the I.R.S. than for any daring country music (have you seen his self-parodying, ”it-pays-the-rent Taco Bell commercial?”). Certainly he hasn’t produced a recording in the last decade that wasn’t wildly uneven or aimlessly mediocre.
And so while Across the Borderline is filled with surprises — a jaunty, Afro-Western-swing version of Paul Simon’s ”Graceland”; an achingly lovely duet with Bonnie Raitt (”Getting Over You”); a delicate, ethereal collaboration with Sinéad O’Connor on Peter Gabriel’s ”Don’t Give Up” — the album’s most startling achievement is that it is truly the artistic and commercial career-saver that Nelson so desperately needed, and which its producer, Don Was, so obviously intended.
Just as he did with Raitt on 1989’s Nick of Time, Was hasn’t modernized Nelson so much as he has showcased — or, to use an apt pretentious-rock-critic term, recontextualized — the singer’s greatest strengths. In the past, Nelson has recorded deeply satisfying duets with country legends like Webb Pierce (on 1982’s In the Jailhouse Now) and Hank Snow (on 1985’s Brand on My Heart), but you didn’t run out to buy those, did you? There’s a reasonable chance, however, that pop radio might let you hear Nelson trade lines with non-country stars like Raitt and O’Connor.
If so, you’ll rediscover Nelson’s boundless virtues: the way he phrases words conversationally, like a honky-tonk Sinatra; his knack for turning sentimental clichés into heartfelt emotions (”Valentine”); his gift for deadpan comic wryness (Lyle Lovett’s ”Farther Down the Line”); and his mastery of the ballad of despair (the grave melancholy he locates in the Ry Cooder/John Hiatt-James Dickinson title song). At the same time, Was has taken care to minimize Nelson’s weaknesses, most notably his tendency to allow songs to natter on into medium-tempo mumbo jumbo. In fact, the only tedious number on Heartland is, oddly enough, the leadoff cut: a version of Simon’s ”American Tune” so lugubrious you half expect Nelson to start snoring sometime around the third verse.
Crammed with big-name cameos, Borderline is clearly conceived to make a media splash. In addition to the stars mentioned earlier, there’s even a good performance from Bob Dylan, who sings a tune he cowrote with Nelson, ”Heartland,” with a rare, lively snappishness. Nonetheless, Borderline, featuring instrumentation as spare as Nelson’s own minimal guitar chording, avoids becoming an overloaded celebrity self-indulgence. If anything, it’s Nelson’s most personal work in ages, since no matter whose song he’s covering or whom he’s warbling with, the music coheres as a portrait of one tough, lonely, proud old guy. And an eccentric duffer, too: The last cut, a Nelson original called ”Still Is Still Moving to Me,” is a chunk of mystical country-folk-rock metaphysics — something about how you’re moving even when you’re not moving — that builds to a raw yet melodic intensity you don’t often hear this side of Neil Young.
Overshadowed in recent years by Garth-mania, Nelson has now topped Brooks in the creation of an album that cuts across the borderline of country into every precinct of pop. As the artistic refinancing of a nearly bankrupt career, this album could have been called Paid in Full. A