If Shotgun Willie
played a bit like a concept album, Phases and Stages
was a full-blown one, tracing the dissolution of a marriage and devoting one side to the wife's perspective, the second to the husband's. If anything, Willie
overplays his hand a bit, insisting on grafting the "Phases and Stages" theme between crucial songs to the point of genuine irritation. But, pretend that never happened, erase it from your mind, and Phases and Stages
is easily the equal of its remarkable predecessor, a wonderful set of music that resonates deeply, as deeply as the words. Make no mistake -- the deceptively relaxed arrangements, including the occasional strings, not only highlight Nelson
's clever eclecticism, but they also heighten the emotional impact of the album. And this is a hell of an emotional record, where even each side's celebratory honky tonk numbers (the medley "Sister's Coming Home/Down at the Corner Beer Joint" and "Pick Up the Tempo," respectively) are muted by sadness. Then, there are the centerpieces: "Walkin'," where the woman decides it's time to move on; "Pretend I Never Happened," perhaps the coldest ending to a relationship ever written; "Bloody Mary Morning," a bleary-eyed morning-after tale that became a standard; "It's Not Supposed to Be That Way," a nearly unbearably melancholy account of a love gone wrong; and "Heaven and Hell," a waltz summary of the relationship. Any two of these would have formed a strong core for an album, but placed together in a narrative context, their impact is even more considerable. As a result, this is not just one of Willie Nelson
's best records, but one of the great concept albums overall.