I’ve been a fan of Willie Nile since his eponymous debut 25 years ago that saw him variously touted as the new Dylan and McGuinn. The Ramones and Springsteen rolled into one.
Born Robert Anthony Noonan is now 66, he’s only notched up a further eight albums, this included, since then, largely due to having spent pretty much all of the 80s tied up in legal disputes that kept him out of the studio and off the road. His comeback was marred by further label problems, belatedly getting into gear in 1999 with the self-released Beautiful Wreck of the World. Since when he’s been on a relative roll and, while he may not have become the conquering hero he was once hyped to be, he has sustained a loyal and devoted following and earned critical plaudits for all his releases, most recently House of A Thousand Guitars, The Innocent Ones and American Ride.
However, if those leaned to the anthemic, guitar-led folk-rock side of things, If I Was A River is at the opposite end of the spectrum, featuring 10 sparsely arranged introspective acoustic numbers with Nile accompanying himself on piano. Not just any piano either, but the same Steinway Grand he was playing in the same studio as Lennon the night he was shot. Maybe the melancholia of that evening seeped into its keys.
Produced by Nile and Stewart Lerman, the album also features contributions by Steuart Smith on assorted guitars and keyboards, the legendary David Mansfield on mandolin, acoustic guitar and violin and viola and Frankie Lee on backing vocals. Lee also co-wrote the water course bookends, If I Was A River, a magnificent, anthemic pledge of love with strong gospel (and Randy Newman) undertones, and its more hymnal, thematic and musical companion piece, Let Me Be The River.
There’s three other Lee co-writes, and if One In A Lullaby is a pleasant if somewhat insubstantial love song both Gloryland and Song Of A Soldier are real standouts, the former another gospel, or more accurately spiritual, influenced number that could have been penned during the Civil Rights Movement, and the latter, featuring Mansfield’s fiddle, evocative of some Civil War folk tune about finding salvation through love.
A fourth collaboration comes with I Can’t Do Crazy (Anymore), a reverie of love’s wild abandon days and how, the older you get, the less you can afford to be so reckless with your heart, co-written by veteran session man and songwriter Danny Kortchmar.
The remaining numbers are all Nile flying solo, an eclectic package that ranges from the bluesy Lost, another song to use water imagery, here as a religious motif with a lost soul’s call for deliverance, with a piano melody highly reminiscent of Nina Simone’s Feeling Good, and the early Dylan feel of the tinkling saloon piano accompanied Goin’ To St Louis to The One You Used to Love, a song about offering support in time of trouble that reminded me greatly of Mike Scott.
And then there’s the decidedly oddball Lullaby Loon, a sort of, shanty-cum-minuet drinking song, on which he delivers a playful harangue of all types of music, from rock and roll (“a crock of shit”) and folk (“takes forever and makes me snore”) to jazz (“like water on the brain”) and heavy metal (“like being buried alive”), that surely bares a Monty Python hallmark. How many repeat plays the joke can take is open to question, but there’s no doubt that, like all his previous albums, everything else warrants returning to again and again.
Review by: Mike Davies
Let Me Be The River
Out Now via Blue Rose
Order via Amazon