Nile is a total cornball, and isn’t afraid to hide it.
It’s not often that an artist will experience their greatest critical and artistic success in their sixties. It’s so rare, in fact, that we can call it the Willie Nile Rule and say it only applies once and never again in the case of its namesake, sort of like Trump Steaks, because surely no one ever ate more than one of those damn things. An unlikely confluence of events conspired to make this rule a reality, starting with Nile, an NYC singer-songwriter who received rave reviews for his 1980 self-titled debut album and at that time toured with the likes of The Who, quitting the music business for decades at a time because of business disputes, thus robbing him of what would have been his prime years, and continuing into him somehow keeping his songwriting mojo alive, and in fact stronger than ever, into his grandfather years—long enough to finally dive into a full-time recording and touring schedule most of his fellow AARP-aged rockers gave up long ago. So when he puts out records of the pedestrian sort that we normally expect from graying classic rockers, it’s surprising and disappointing. Indeed, Nile’s latest album, World War Willie—his 5th album in the last decade and 10th overall—isn’t bad for a 67-year old. However, by Nile’s own standards, it’s sadly lacking in the sort of hooky, high-octane guitar pop/rock that made recent triumphs like Streets of New York and The Innocent Ones so much fun.
World War Willie is Nile’s first rock album since 2013’s acclaimed American Ride; in 2014, he also released an all-piano album, If I Was A River. Perhaps as a reaction to that album’s slow, creaky tendencies, Willie seems deliberately designed to play up a live in the studio sound so as to highlight Nile’s crack four-piece touring band, led by virtuosic bassist Johnny Pisano. It certainly succeeds in that regard, as it’s full of urgent tempos and crackling Fenders. While Nile comes up with songs to back up the energy, it works more or less as well as it ever as for him. With its arch piano intro and theatrical sweep, opener “Forever Wild” could easily pass for an outtake from The River, never mind that the characters in this song keep their youthful, rebellious optimism into old age rather than see it crushed by a factory shutdown or a gambling debt or one of the million and a half other tragedies that befall characters is Bruce Springsteen songs. Nonetheless, the Boss, one of Nile’s many celebrity rock star admirers, should be proud. The let’s-scream-this-all-together humanist anthem “Let’s All Come Together” works in spite of its unabashed cheesiness thanks to Nile’s ability to seemingly pull arena-ready choruses out of his ass at will, even if it lacks the edge and level of sing-alongability of his previous protest classics “One Guitar” and “The Innocent Ones.”
Indeed, Nile is a total cornball, and isn’t afraid to hide it. Fortunately, even the most soft-headed, obvious liberal platitudes (“Now some may want to fight/And some may go to war/But after all these centuries/Who can say what for?”) can sound like revolutionary marching orders when set to life-affirming sing-alongs of the sort that has become almost commonplace for Nile in recent years. He can write hooks that grab you by the scruff after one listen and never let go, sounding like something you’re sure you’ve been listening to on the radio for forty years but can’t quite place. Unfortunately, on World War Willie, he doesn’t bother to do so with much if any consistency, as he leans disappointingly on rote genre exercises, like the silly Harley commercial rattlesnake rock of “Bad Boy,” instead of coming up with more killer new melodies. The title track is just a basic Buddy Holly/Bo Diddley beat coupled with an attempt at comedy so painfully unfunny it’s not even clear what the joke is supposed to be. “Citibank Nile” is at least clear about what it’s skewering, but musically it’s just generic Chicago Blooze #13,879, and as a result the anti-1% jokes wear painfully thin by the end of the overlong five-minute running time.
Fortunately, the last few songs (other than the penultimate “Citibank Nile”) prove that Nile hasn’t lost his melodic talents or sense of good taste. The vagabond saga “Trouble Down in Diamond Town,” with its chiming guitars and dramatic chorus that will be stuck in your head for days, is exactly the kind of Innocent Ones-style melodic rocker this album could have used a whole lot more of. The jaunty “When Levon Sings” is a trifling but catchy and endearing eulogy for Levon Helm (“When lightning cracks, that’s Levon’s snare”). And closing out the set is a ground-shaking, rocked-up cover of “Sweet Jane” performed in tribute to another one of Nile’s felled heroes, Lou Reed. Finding a happy medium between Reed’s roided-out glam rendition on Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal and the charming sing-song quality of the Velvet Underground’s original recording, Nile’s version is a perfect marriage of melodicism and hard rock power. Too bad he couldn’t reconcile the two on the rest of World War Willie.