In the late ’70s Willie Nile was on the verge of international stardom. The industry was dubbing him the next “big thing.” After Springsteen, he was going to be the next Bob Dylan, the voice of a new generation and all the expectations that went along with the designation. It wasn’t just hype, either, as fellow musicians quickly recognized he was something special. Pete Townshend specifically requested Nile to open for the Who on their 1980 North American tour while, more recently, Lucinda Williams has said if there was any justice in the world she’d be opening for Nile and not the other way around.
Instead of cashing in on his accolades in the ’80s, Nile chose to walk away to preserve his independence. Going almost a decade without a record contract (though he never stopping writing and performing), he then put out two releases in the early ’90s, and then nothing else again until 2000. It was another six years before he released Streets Of New York, which was followed by three live recordings in quick succession in 2007, Live In Central Park and 2008, Live at the Turning Point and Live From The Streets Of New York. This, in turn, was followed by 2009′s House Of A Thousand Guitars on his own River House Records.
It’s obvious having his own record label has agreed with Nile as he’s now released his third new studio disc in the past five years. The Innocent Ones made its way into stores in North America on November 22 after enjoying a successful release in Europe last year. The eleven cuts on the disc reflect Nile’s usual mix of power-pop anthems, thoughtful ballads, and rock and roll for the sheer fun of it. There aren’t many popular artists these days who are capable of doing a credible job of any one of those types of material, let alone all three. Yet Nile seems to have no difficulty in switching gears from one mode to the other and performing each with equal ability.
With the exception of “Sideways Beautiful,” which he wrote on his own, all the songs on the disc were co-written by Nile and his longtime musical cohort Frankie Lee. The two men have a knack for creating songs with deceptively simple music and lyrics. An intelligent song need not be needlessly complicated, they seem to understand. Lee and Nile are not only masters at writing intelligent lyrics that speak directly to their listeners, but they’ve also not forgotten that rock and roll is supposed to be fun. Infectious tracks like “The Innocent Ones,” “Song For You,” and “Rich And Broken” capture such a spirit.
Aside from the fact they are well written and intelligent, what makes the songs on this disc so compelling is Nile’s abilities as a performer. By no stretch of the imagination does he have a beautiful voice, but it has a rough-hewn honesty so many strive to emulate but that which can’t be faked. Whether he’s excited, happy, sad, or just having a good time, his voice doesn’t lie. In “Song For You,” when he sings, “For every heart that’s broken in two/ I’m speaking your name, I’m lighting a flame/ I’m singing a song for you,” his compassion is so genuine that you can’t help believing him. Nile isn’t just singing these words, he lives them; and if he could he’d find a way to comfort the lost people of the world he would.
In “Rich And Broken”, he sings about the wasted lives of young starlets like Lindsey Lohan and other party girls with genuine regret, yet he also recognizes that our society in its craving for celebrity must accept some responsibility for what’s happened to them. “She’s oh so rich and broken/ There’s part of her that’s yet to be awoken/ She’s rich and broken…and she’s mine”…”With first name recognition/ She’s a walking fashion fiction getting high/ Bye bye bye.” He mourns their lost potential, and how a cult of celebrity has reduced their identities to meaningless names. When he sings “and she’s mine” Nile is accepting his share of the blame for being part of a society that thinks such celebrity worship is normal.
Willie Nile is that rarest of musicians, a true independent. He’s turned his back on record contracts twice because of the compromises involved in working with studios and forged his own path for the last two decades. The result is pure unadulterated rock and roll, and lyrics sung with more conviction in one song than many others could squeeze out over the course of a career. Like the bards of old, Nile seems to have found a way to tap into the human condition to create songs that are both topical and timeless. He finds universal themes and imbues them with his own unique blend of compassion and intelligence in the hope that he might make a difference. So when he sings “So if you get knocked down you gotta’ take a stand/ For all the outcast, dead last who need a helping hand” on the “One Guitar,” he gives you hope that maybe if people do raise their voices together they can indeed make a difference.
(Photo Credit: Christina Arrigoni)