“Headin’ down to Memphis on the 419,
Lookin’ for Elvis Presley and the Reverend Green.”
Rock ‘n’ roll promised its listeners from the very beginning that America was an Eden in waiting, that in spite of its unspeakable failures, its monstrous racial, sexual, and class inequities, it could be the utopia we’ve all been trying so hard to get back to. Now, not one of the genre’s early practitioners made the promise in words, but the sound of rock ‘n’ roll - bringing together the vibrancy of pop, the soul of blues, the hard-scrabble authenticity of country, and the transcendence of gospel - said more about the utopian impulse than words ever could. Liberty, love, and justice were inherent in the music. Even the harshest institutional barriers couldn’t keep us apart - we could all come together in the music, regardless of our respective colors, genders, or incomes, and have a damn good time.
Of course, it appears now that perhaps this was too much for popular music to promise. Rock (with or without the roll - usually without) remains to this day a very white, very male, very middle class form, and like most pop music that doesn’t take the lion’s share of its audience from the pre-teen demo, it has its niche market (at present, white collegiates and post-collegiates). But that’s not breaking news - pop music has been fractured for decades. And for as long as this fracturing has been pop’s modus operandi, there have been self-styled revivalist rock ‘n’ rollers excavating the music’s past and iconography, searching for and extending the music’s secrets. Bruce Springsteen has made one hell of a career out of it, as have many others. With American Ride, Willie Nile joins their ranks and proves he can do it just as well as the best of them, sometimes better - Springsteen included.
“This Is Our Time” is a bracing, effervescent opener, at once a statement of purpose and a call to arms. Over ebullient harmonies and a driving rhythm section, Nile makes his offering to the ghosts of rock’s past (the train alluded to in the song’s first verse is a dead ringer for Presley’s “mystery train”) and asserts the value of that past in the present. Then Nile moves from the keenly observed punk of “Life on Bleecker Street” to the gentle, ruminative travelogue that gives the record its title. Not content to spend his time on such small change subjects as the national mythos and rock’s redemptive capacities, he also tackles religious sectarianism in the wrathful, stomping “Holy War”. In what may be the album’s musical peak, Nile tears through Jim Carroll’s punk elegy “People Who Died” with winning abandon. And these are just personal highlights - there’s no filler here. Throughout, there are indelible tunes, insightful lyrics, passionate singing, and fine playing. American Ride is a great record, perhaps even a masterpiece of its form. It’s traditional in its approach, to be sure, but it never devolves into retro posturing.
Nevertheless, because its energy, pluck, and heart hearken back to the first wave of rock ‘n’ roll, one can’t help but hear something a bit mournful in American Ride. Great as Nile is, he’s not going to be burning up the charts with this release. This kind of music simply no longer holds the public imagination. That’s not necessarily a bad thing - there’s new, different music being made today that does things rock ‘n’ roll could never do. Still, when the music and message are as good as they are on this album, you want “major statement” to translate into “major hit”, and barring unforeseeable and unfathomable miracles unlikely to occur, it won’t for Nile. Instead, what we have as devotees of this shrinking genre is a triumphant record. That will just have to do.