Willie Nelson has written some of the most chilling, bluntly honest portrayals of the anguish of separation and the shock of finding oneself suddenly alone. With [Phases and Stages] Nelson attempts one of the most ambitious country projects ever: a concept album on the subject of breaking up. Ordinarily, concept albums strike me as pretentious bores (someone will call this one "the Sgt. Pepper of C&W," "the shitkicker's Tommy"), but I find Phases and Stages extraordinarily convincing….
["I Still Can't Believe You're Gone"] is without doubt the saddest, most compelling C&W song I've ever heard….
On Phases and Stages, Nelson describes a separation, first from the woman's point of view (side one), then from the man's (side two). Both are true to the milieu in which Nelson works. The woman runs away, finds another, but still wonders; the man loses himself in self-pity and then assumes the facade of honky-tonk bravado. Nelson can make a banal line like "ironing and crying, crying and ironing" say much more than it does on the surface. He seems to understand an unloved woman better than any dozen articles from Ms.: "If guilt is the question / Then truth is the answer / I've been lyin' to me all along." His deceptively simple lyrics fit whole chapters into single lines….
The fact that Nelson can fashion a believable scenario with such sparseness is a tribute to his ability to turn experience into good music.
Chet Flippo, "Honky Tonk Bravado," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1974; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 156, March 14, 1974, p. 61.