Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel, Willie and the Wheel (Bismeaux)

Asleep at The Wheel’s been rolling since 1974, but this is their first showdown with Willie. I’m happy to report that nobody gets drunk (that wasn’t drunk before), and nobody goes off the road. Willie nips ahead of a beat, ducks behind the next one, mock-stutters, loses himself in his own larynx and finds himself a hair before the next chorus. Clarinets swoop sweetly, guitars scratch, keys tinkle, Willie gives away no jelly roll (today anyway), and the listener visualizes backup singers swaying before backup microphones.

You might think this doesn’t suggest Willie’s most personal or heart-aching sides. Superficially speaking you might be right, but pay attention. “Right or wrong,” Willie sings, “I’ll always love you / and though you’re gone, I can’t forget” against the Wheel’s two-step pep. “I’m Sittin’ on Top of the World” frankly discusses dissipation. And so comes the darkness, if you truly can’t live without that darkness. It never completely leaves; it shrinks to small shadows. I haven’t heard a more exhilarating, body-celebrating album this year, but Mr. Nelson keeps it true to life. The great ones in their greatness, must deliver no less.