My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘Phases And Stages’

phases and stagesWillie’s second album for Atlantic proved to be his most ambitious artistic achievement to date. It was recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, after Willie jettisoned earlier recordings of the songs he had made in Nashville before his deal with Atlantic materialized.

Envisaged as a concept album around the story of a divorce, completely written by Willie and presumably inspire by his own recent divorce from second wife Shirley Collie, four of the songs share the album’s title with a unique subtitle. In practice this means each gets introduced with a verse from the song of the same title. This, combined with the fact that a couple of these tracks are still very short indeed (less than two minutes even with the add-on) and a couple of others clock in at over four minutes – very unusual for the period, makes the construction of the album as a whole the goal, one where the whole is more than the parts, rather than a collection of songs, in some ways like the soundtrack to a stage musical. Some enterprising person could probably adapt it for the stage, perhaps incorporating some of Willie’s other songs, with great success.

The format of the vinyl record also dictated the structure, with the first half or side looking at the woman’s side of the story, with surprising levels of empathy. The opening (and shortest) track ‘Phases And Stages/Washing The Dishes’ expresses the wife’s weariness of being a housewife waiting at home for her unloving husband to bother to come home, and weeping over the lipstick stains on the shirts he carelessly leaves for her to launder. This sets the motivation for her to walk out, a decision she takes in ‘Phases And Stages/Walkin’’, declaring bleakly

There ain’t nothing worth saving except one of us…
Walkin’’s better than runnin’ away
And crawlin’ ain’t no good at all

This one is written in the first person from the wife’s point of view, and shows remarkable insight. ‘Pretend I Never Happened’, which seems to be the note she leaves behind, telling her man to forget here “if I ever cross your mind”, is excellent, with a subtly revealed bitterness as she assumes he won’t much care she’s gone. Both of these songs would stand well on their own, separated from the context of the album.

‘Sister’s Coming Home/Down At The Beer Joint’ sees the woman going back home to her parents and resuming her wild single life ignoring the years and extra pounds. Emmylou Harris covered this in joyfully raucous duet with Tanya Tucker a few years later on her Blue Kentucky Girl album, and I admit I prefer that version.

In the pensive ‘How Will I Know) I’m Falling In Love Again’, the last song on the woman’s side of the album, she wonders about moving on with someone new, clearly ready to do so, but hampered by the doubts engendered by the unsuccessful marriage.

it’s back to the downbeat with the classic ‘Bloody Mary Morning’ (a top 20 hit single which became a favourite with Willie’s fans) the husband faces his wife’s departure as he flies from their LA home to Texas. Appropriately, after that bloody Mary, the bluesy drink-fuelled ‘Phases And Stages/No Love Around’ follows.

There follow two ballads about struggling with the aftermath of her leaving, both with string arrangements. The sobered, hurting ‘I Still Can’t Believe You’re Gone’ was a less successful single, but is a beautifully written and deeply personal song, with Willie pondering his new loneliness. Even better, ‘It’s Not Supposed To Be That Way’ is a superb song about his feelings:

It’s not supposed to be that way
You’re supposed to know that I love you
But it don’t matter anyway
If I can’t be there to control you
And like the other little children
You’re gonna dream a dream or two
But be careful what you’re dreaming
Soon your dreams will be dreaming you

The perkier sounding ‘Heaven And Hell’ is also very good, if rather too short.

Finally ‘Phases And Stages/Pick Up The Tempo’ reflects on his hard living as a touring musician. another song which has become a Willie Nelson classic, this version features a chorus of backing vocalists.

This album is an all-time classic. It was critically acclaimed on release but did only moderately well commercially, and the country division on Atlantic closed soon afterwards. However, it is now widely available, and an essential part of a serious country collection.

Grade: A+

2 responses to “Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘Phases And Stages’

  1. Paul W Dennis October 12, 2013 at 2:25 am

    Essential is the right word for this album. While Willie’s first album on Atlantic was pretty good, this was the real eye-opener. Like RCA, Atlantic really didn’t know how to market Willie (or country music for that mattter) and as noted above, pulled out of the genre leaving David Rogers (their more successful country artist) and Willie Nelson without a label.

  2. AndyTheDrifter October 13, 2013 at 7:47 pm

    Timeless album. Willie was really on a roll during this period.

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