Album review: WILLIE NILE – American Ride

Blue Rose Records [Release date 24.06.13]

Willie Nile is a true blue collar troubadour with a poet’s eye for colourful analytical prose. He’s worked every bar, club and theatre in town, world-wide and he’s excited audiences big and small with his undiminished passion and stirring lyrics. He’s street smart enough to be able to transform a docile crowd to wild fist pumping fervor, with uplifting songs that strike a delicate balance between the reflective, the aspiration and the celebratory.

Willie doesn’t so much preach, as simply present us with stories of how life really is, or at the very least how it could be, as seen through a prism of hope and disappointments. Either way, you will never leave a Willie Nile show with anything less than a spring in your step, ready to take on a new day.

But the quandary remains, how to bottle that magic in the form of a definitive studio album. It’s a problem that has quietly dogged his stop-start career since he first made a splash with his self titled debut album in 1980.  Too often the production tried too hard to play to his strengths and is rooted in an ‘80’s sound. Traces of that are still to be found on the new album, from the Springsteen style count-in of the opening track and the boss style bluster of ‘If I Ever See The Light’, to the telegraphed hooks and punky phrasing of ‘Life on Bleecker Street’.

‘Bleecker Street’ fuses Dylanesue irony and Costello style folk, rock and punk stylings with an inevitable sing-along chorus and a catchy ‘wooh’ refrain. But his narratives are so good and his voice is never less than honest on a dozen tracks that draw you into his passionate view of things.

Willie Nile is a humanist and a poet who delivers his vision with heartfelt felt lyrics that are sometimes delivered with a Dylan style snarl. He’s a balladeer unafraid to touch your emotions and an overseer of events and places which he soaks up like a sponge and transforms into memorable songs. He’s an outsider with a portrait painter’s eye who is blessed with an ability to empathize. He’s a writer with an inherent need to understand and describe life around him. He’s also a survivor of an industry predicated on quick returns that is sharply at odds with the veracity of his own words and he’s a singer songwriter whose burning flame just won’t be denied.

Just as the sentiment of the opening track ‘This Is Our Time’ suggests, ‘American Ride’ is Willie’s definitive take on things. Where ‘One Guitar’ was an internationalist rallying cry for us all, this album draws on his insightful homespun philosophy and places it right back in the streets of New York, a place he imbues with some welcome post 9/11 affection.

Ultimately he take his message coast to coast Dylan style, on the histo-cultural travelogue of the title track, sharing his sense of wonder in a way that makes even the most clichéd landmarks sound compelling: ‘These roads can take us coast to coast, From points unknown all the way back, on an American ride’.  

His songs are shot through with hope and optimism even if his lyrics sometimes reflect loss and regret. He’s a beacon on a barren landscape, who finds joy in the microcosm of life, but is smart enough to de-construct false gods as on the dark ‘Holy War’. His sense of purpose and being is writ large in song titles like ‘This Is Our Time’, while he’s cute enough to add some ironic Randy Newman style insights on the hyper call & response of ‘God Laughs’.

‘American Ride’ encompasses all those influences with Nile cast as a Dylan style narrator, fuelled by unrepentant punk energy that infuses his bombastic rock and narrative led Americana with a jet propelled vigor.  It works so well on ‘This Is Our Time’ and is given a rockabilly impetus on Jim Carroll’s poignant ‘People Who Died’.

The end result is a compelling and restless spiritual journey reflecting both New York City and life in general. It’s the consistent quality of Willie’s narratives that make this album the successful sum of his parts.

Whether he’s the street poet of ‘Life on Bleecker Street’,  the wry  philosopher on ‘God Laughs’, or the reflective narrator on ‘She’s Got My Heart’ – on which he  beautifully voices a father’s ode to his daughter – he is unwavering in his mission to communicate and share life’s wonders.  And his quest is never better distilled than when he fills the role of the poignant narrator on the filmic imagery of the immigrant song ‘The Crossing’.

‘American Ride’ is a passionate, musical journey and one that many more will soon surely enjoy. ****

Review by Pete Feenstra

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