Phases and Stages

Phases and Stages

Reflecting on 1974’s end-of-a-marriage song cycle Phases and Stages, Willie Nelson would claim the material wasn’t autobiographical. Sure, he’d suffered heartache—who hadn’t? But to summarize so tenderly the scenes and moods that make up a marriage’s end required not a turn into one’s self, but a turn out toward the world of shared experience. “Ironing and crying/Crying and ironing,” he sighs early on during the album; a few tracks later, he’s singing the heartbreaking “Pretend I Never Happened” with tears in his eyes and a smile on his face. “Well, sometimes it’s heaven and sometimes it’s hell/And sometimes I don’t even know,” Nelson announces at one point, and it’s in that compassionate uncertainty that he comes to rest. Recorded with the band at the famed Muscle Shoals in Alabama, the music on Phases and Stages is as steady and weathered and warm and stripped bare as the characters in the songs themselves. The album’s first side is said to be told through a woman’s lens, and the second viewed from a man’s perspective—which, for mid-1970s country feels a bit more egalitarian than the more explicitly coded (if no less entertaining) work of, say, George Jones and Tammy Wynette on the same subject. But modern listeners of any gender should be able to recognize themselves in one line or another here, as well as the overall message that life does, in fact, go on. Grief and transformation of this order might take a lifetime to process—but since this is music, Nelson gets in and out in about 30 minutes.

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