More of the same, but another worthwhile tribute
Willie Nelson’s work ethic is impressive, especially so deep into his career, as he released two albums in between these two Frank Sinatra tributes. Sure, one of them was largely written by other people, but it is still impressive that he’s maintained quality and passion for this long. Even if he digs for deeper cuts here, the overall effect is still the same; these could have been tacked onto 2018’s My Way and no one would know the difference. Nevertheless, That’s Life succeeds on the same paths as its predecessor by combining the best of Sinatra and Nelson into a holistic product with no wrinkles or awkwardness.
Willie Nelson is obviously not Frank Sinatra, especially when it comes to vocals. Sinatra was one of the most effortlessly charming and charismatic performers of all time, the penultimate crooner and showman who defined what it meant to be an entertainer. Though he had gritter moments with the Highwaymen and as one of the renegades of outlaw country, Nelson was always much more a wilting flower. Sure, Sinatra could be intimate on songs like “Cottage for Sale,” but he still had a much deeper voice than Nelson’s higher wispiness on beautiful classics like “Blue Skies.” Willie’s former bandmate Johnny Cash would be almost too obvious to cover him, but Nelson has fundamentally different strengths.
Nelson’s ingenious idea was not to replicate Sinatra’s brassiness or flash, but his dramatic presentation. There are still horns on “Luck Be a Lady” and “You Make Me Feel So Young,” but even that song features a harmonica solo as trumpets and sax have been largely swapped out for saloon piano and bluesy guitar. Nelson’s recent albums like First Rose of Spring have been immaculately produced, and That’s Life is more of the same. The brass section does not suffocate the mix like Sinatra’s songs tended to, and every piano note, bass pluck and drum beat is given a soft deftness without feeling washed-out or weak. The sorrowful harmonica on “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” the final surge of strings on “Cottage for Sale,” and the tight guitar solos on “Luck Be a Lady” and “Learnin the Blues” are among the instrumental triumphs here. The piano playing is the star of the record; it delivers nothing short of bliss.
Nelson does feel a little odd over “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” as he doesn’t quite match the song’s jumpy tempo and constant stops and starts, yet the rest of his performances deliver plenty of rougher passion and sorrow. His rawer take serves some of these tracks better than Sinatra’s forcefulness. “Lonesome Road” still has the horn blasts, yet the haggard delivery is a good fit for the song’s loneliness, as is “You Make Feel So Young” delivered by a much older man.
Perhaps these renditions would have benefitted from pulling back the bombast even more, but it’s hard to complain when the piano playing is this good and the music sounds so lush and full of life. That’s Life is nothing new from My Way, yet if the formula works this well, then there is little reason to change it.