Nelson’s second Sinatra tribute is affectionate and authentic.
‘That’s Life’ is Willie Nelson’s second Frank Sinatra tribute album, following up on ‘My Way’ from 2018. The cover art is an atmospheric take on Sinatra’s moody 1955 ‘In the Wee Small Hours’ album cover, with Nelson standing underneath a streetlight with a battered acoustic guitar and what is presumably a joint. Most of the recording took place at Hollywood’s Capitol Studios, where Sinatra recorded from 1956 to 1961. Producers Buddy Cannon and Matt Rollings provide distinctive jazz arrangements suited to Nelson’s range.
One, let alone two, albums of Sinatra songs was not a surprising choice for Nelson, considering the mega-hit his 1978 ‘Stardust’ album of standards turned out to be, as well as his later similar releases ‘Moonlight Becomes You’ and ‘Healing Hands of Time.’ Like other artists with a lengthy career, these songbook-type albums tend to be what they focus on when their own songwriting stalls. Even listeners who aren’t fond of reinterpretations will find a lot to enjoy on ‘That’s Life.’
Nelson was friends with Sinatra, which at first glance seems to be an odd pairing, considering their disparate New Jersey-Texas backgrounds and musical styles. Then again, they did have a fair amount in common, not least of all wine, women, and song. Both indisputably had an ear for a good tune. ‘That’s Life’ includes iconic Sinatra standards (‘You Make Me Feel So Young,’ ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin,’ ‘Luck Be A Lady’) as well as less well-known deeper tracks like ‘Just In Time,’ ‘Lonesome Road,’ and Willard Robinson and Larry Conley’s melancholy ‘Cottage for Sale.’ None of the songs veer very far from the originals. The stalwart jazz guitar is often punctuated by subtle country flourishes, because this is, after all, still a Willie Nelson album. Nelson is no crooner; his voice is not smooth but it brings depth and character to the material. He practically purrs his way through ‘I Won’t Dance,’ a delightful duet with Diana Krall, and breezes through ‘Nice Work If You Can Get It.’ His wry delivery is especially effective on the title track, which he seems to have a lot of fun belting out, even if he’s missing Sinatra’s bombast during the famous line “I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet / A pawn and a king.”
Nelson is almost four decades older than Sinatra was when he first recorded ‘That’s Life,’ so he means every word when he sings: “That’s what all the people say / You’re riding high in April, shot down in May / But I know I’m gonna change that tune / When I’m back on top, back on top in June.” Ol’ Blue Eyes himself would have been charmed by this collection.