Willie Nelson’s guitar dryly punctuates the arty ecumenicism of producers Buddy Cannon and Kenny Chesney on Moment of Forever, and the impressionistic sheen suits the irony that edges Nelson’s singing. The arrangements yaw and glisten with ghostly guitars and submerged accordion, as if veteran Music Row knob-twirler Cannon and superstar Chesney spent their vacations listening to Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. Still, Moment isn’t escapist gauze—the material, by everyone from Guy Clark to Randy Newman to Willie himself, makes shaky peace with a bad era that reads suspiciously like the waning moments of George W. Bush’s second administration.
This is evident on the version of Newman’s “Louisiana 1927,” which Nelson slightly rewrites, singing: “President say, ‘Little fat man, isn’t a shame/What the river has done to this poor farmer’s land.'” It isn’t a disgrace, but Willie doesn’t bring much to the song. So it says something about his genius that Big Kenny’s “The Bob Song” recalls the saturnine Newman of 1999’s Bad Love in its intentionally bumptious arrangement, which swings a Sousaphone in triple time. “B-O-B Bob, ’bout as dumb as a rock/But Bob, he made it to the top,” Willie sings. It’s a queasily political moment. Elsewhere, he sings Clark’s “Worry B Gone” like the stoner blues it is, does right by Dave Matthews’s “Gravedigger,” and sounds content to throw away the record’s best joke on his own “You Don’t Think I’m Funny Anymore.” Rarely has Nelson’s ambivalent cool been put to more troubling use: On Paul Craft’s “Keep Me From Blowing Away,” he tries to remember “the days that just crumbled away,” and in the end is forced to concede defeat in that particular.