Willie Nile: If I Was a River

WillieNile_IfIWasARiverA New York rocker trades his guitar for piano

Willie Nile’s artistic renaissance continues unabated. Having championed rock ‘n’ roll guitars on his last few albums [1 2 3], he now strips himself down to singer-songwriter roots with his own piano serving as the primary backing for these intimate vocals. The piano brings an entirely different mood to the album than did the guitars, and while Nile’s songs have always been deeply personal, he sings here with introspection instead than proclamation. Rather than readying songs for a stage and an auditorium and an audience, these feel as if they were written to be sung directly to each listener, one-on-one.

Nile is an expressive pianist, and the Steinway Grand on which he recorded the album is an old friend from earlier days at New York’s Record Plant. His affection for this musical partner is detailed in the album’s promotional video, but even more so in the conversation he has with the keys. The piano’s sustain hangs in the air more moodily than that of an electric guitar, and recording without a drummer (or even a click track), frees Nile’s singing to follow the ebbs and flows of his songs. The lyrics display Nile’s social consciousness, particularly in the opening track, but also the way in which he uses ambiguity to leave himself open to interpretation.

“Lost” could be sung either by a lover without his mate or a lapsed believer seeking his forsaken God. Similarly, “The One You Used to Love” could be a call to an ex or a renewal of faith. Nile writes of love and war, lullaby wishes, and on “Lullaby Loon” a sarcastic loathing of just about every kind of music. With the bulk of a full band stripped away, the album becomes a duet between Nile and the piano, supplemented by light touches of guitar, strings and backing vocals. Trading guitar for piano impacts not only the playing and recording, but also the writing and singing, which keeps the songwriting familiar, but the expression new, unexpected and entirely welcome. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

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