Achieving Zero Gravity

Willie Nelson resists the gravitational pull to rest on his laurels and shoots for the moon instead.

When Willie Nelson launches into Teatro's "The Maker," the high-plains-driftin' Texan sounds like a redneck from outer space.

Which is a good thing. What it means is that Nelson has reinvented himself, has adopted a kind of Generation X-Files persona and has managed to do so without losing what was good and sincere about the earthbound version. Of course, as far as most mainstream country radio is concerned, he might as well be slipping into a black hole. (Translation: He sounds less than nothing like Garth Brooks or Leann Rimes.) From its opening notes, the Daniel Lanois-produced Teatro stakes a claim to its own well-rounded corner of the moonscape. (It also completes a trilogy of recent Lanois-produced triumphs, including 1995's Wrecking Ball, by Emmylou Harris, and last year's Dylan opus, Time Out of Mind.)

Reprising a bunch of songs Nelson recorded in the early '60s (around the time he wrote "Crazy" for Patsy Cline) and featuring a handful of new songs, Teatro is hardly the sound of an artist treading the same old creative waters. Songs like "Everywhere I Go, "Darkness on the Face of the Earth," "Three Days," "I've Just Destroyed the World" and "I Just Can't Let You Say Good-bye" have been cleverly refashioned for the end of the millennium.

Nelson's voice sounds lonelier; the music is more atmospheric, though still sparse; and the songs have acquired new meanings. When "I Just Can't Let You Say Good-bye" was originally recorded in 1966, the lyrics about a man who strangles his partner to death because she's leaving him were probably just as acceptable as those for the Crystals' early '60s song "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)." But in the late '90s, it's not too cool to strangle your lover (or to "smack your bitch up"), and his tale takes on an intentionally more sinister character. The juxtaposition of Emmylou Harris' voice with Nelson's dramatizes the horrors of violence committed in the name of "love": "The flesh around your throat is pale/ Indented by my fingernails/ Please don't scream/ Please don't cry/ I just can't let you say goodbye."

As a country-music rebel, Nelson is rivaled only by the eccentric genius Roger Miller, the man who wrote lyrics such as "Apples are for eatin' and snakes are for hissin'/ I've heard about love and I've heard about kissin'/ I read about it free in a 50-cent illustrated guide/ My uncle used to love me, but she died." (Miller is the man who fused electronica with country 35 years ago, with his 1962 ballad "Lock Stock and Teardrop," in which he electronically treated his voice with a vocoder -- the same thing the Beasties use in "Intergalactic." And in 1968 -- when the Fat Boys were still in diapers -- he invented human beat-boxing on "Treat Me Like a Human." OK, I've finished my Miller PSA.)

Teatro isn't the demented freakfest of "My Uncle Used to Love Me, But She Died," but it is a work of subtle songcraft and blazing originality.