CD Review: Willie Nile – American Ride (Loud & Proud, 2013)
At 65, Willie Nile sings with the perspective of age but the fire of someone a third his years. He’s leapt over long gaps in his recording career with his rock ‘n’ roll heart still beating strong, and starting with 2006’s Streets of New York, he’s spun out a remarkable string of albums. It’s as if the first twenty-five years of his career (starting with his self-titled 1980 debut) were just a warm-up for this latter-day outpouring of music. His latest album is charmed; having started as a fan-funded Pledge Music project slated for independent release, the funding goal was reached in four days, and pledges topped out at three-times the initial target. But before the album even hit the market as an indie, it was picked up by the Sony-distributed Loud & Proud.
The most vital rock ‘n’ roll has traditionally been the province of callow youth. The unleavened zeal of the young experiences everything in the immediate and ranks them as zeros or ones; there are few intermediate ratings and no view toward the horizon. Their downs are the end of the world, and their joys are the next big thing. By the time they’ve developed the personal history to give their experiences context, they’re saddled with sufficient life baggage to obscure the immediate moments. In contrast, there are many musicians who age gracefully, deepening their music over time, but few who manage to retain the passion of their early years amid spouses, children, mortgages and other accoutrements of middle age. Neil Young’s done it, Bruce Springsteen too, and Willie Nile may have topped them both with his latter-day vitality.
Though he’s clear of youth’s blind enthusiasms, Nile remains a stalwart optimist. He writes anthems that invite the listener into the rock ‘n’ roll fraternity to dance, sing along or just feel the energy. Even when he takes it down to the mid-tempo acoustic shuffle of the title track, the awe in his voice resounds with the excitement of discovery. Nile’s written many love letters to his adopted home, but the Big Apple’s opportunities are particularly near and new in “Sunrise in New York City,” and the details of “Bleecker Street” could only be cataloged by someone who’s become a native. The album’s lighter moments include the rockabilly swing of “Say Hey” and the irreverently imagined “God Laughs,” each perfectly paced within the track list.
Nile’s sunny disposition might seem Pollyannaish, were it not so genuine. Down and out, he makes plans for better days on “If I Ever See the Light,” the somber “The Crossing” looks forward from a new shore, and his cover of Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died” resounds with benediction rather than sorrow. The album’s one moment of real tension is the sociopolitical “Holy War,” in which Nile purges himself of the anger that breeds in the shadow of religious extremism. One might read this song as literal criticism of fundamentalist terrorism, but it could also attach allegorically to intra-American culture wars. As on his previous outing, Nile is ably supported in the main by his crack road band and his unabated belief in rock ‘n’ roll, each of which set the album flying. [©2013 Hyperbolium]