You Go Down to the River
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
It’s no accident that the man born Robert Anthony Noonan, who performs under the sobriquet taken from the world’s longest river (Willie Nile), framed his latest album with two songs with waterways as the central metaphor. He’s not being cute. The opening and closing tunes earn their allegorical imagery by invoking old spiritual traditions in soulful and compassionate ways. When Nile declares at the beginning in a leather-voiced whisper, “If I Was a River / I’d carry you home / And roll you in my arms so you won’t be alone,” he sounds like he means the sentiment for all eternity. And when he softly concludes the disc with the lines, “When your days are dark and your nights are long / Let me be the river that you sail away on,” the solace he offers comes off as sincere and sympathetic. The answer to the album title’s rhetorical question is self-evident—Nile is the river with all the rich suggestiveness that reference implies.
The Buffalo, New York native has long been known as a guitar playing rockin’ troubadour. He hung out at CBGB’s during the seventies and opened for the Who at Pete Townshend’s request. Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, the singer-songwriter recorded and performed with musicians such as Lucinda Williams, Elvis Costello, Richard Thompson, and Tori Amos. During the 21st century he’s played live with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. He’s played piano before, but If I Was a River serves as a departure from his previous creations from the past four decades because all of the material is piano-based and acoustic. Yes, there is a little electric guitar accompaniment by Stueart Smith, but Smith mostly plays acoustic guitar, as well as a baritone guitar, bass, and pump organ. Nile himself just plays piano and sings, sometimes backed by Frankie Lee on vocals. Alpha Band alumnus David Mansfield joins in on mandolin, violin, viola, and acoustic guitar as well.
Taken altogether, Nile and company create a quiet, reflective album—even when Nile’s recollecting times when he did crazy things for love. The songs sound old-fashioned and evoke late nineteenth century parlor music in their cadences—cakewalks, waltzes, rags, and such. Nile fingers his piano with a delicate flair and a keen sense of rhythm. Whether he sings about walking his baby home, the promised land hereafter, or the life of a soldier, he looks at the world through the eyes of love. He’s not above making a bad pun (re: He’s “Goin’ to St. Louis” to take his girl “from the state of Misery” or “from the state of Missouri”, depending on your hearing.) or splendidly poetic statements, like “Whenever love comes knocking / I let her in for the night”). Nile keeps the language simple to show the extraordinary in the quotidian. Everything is transformed through the perspective of tenderness.
There is one very silly song, “Lullaby Loon”, which mocks rock, folk, jazz, blues, hip hop, classical, and all sorts of pop music. Nile’s making fun of himself and his ambitions, and that of other artists and the industry as a whole. After all, music is of no practical use. But Nile puts that lie to rest in his execution on that and the other nine songs on this all too short album (clocking in at about 34 minutes). Music enriches our lives and makes it worth living.
Nile knows we have a river of love within that connects us to others. Maybe it’s in our blood, maybe it makes up our souls, maybe it is our shared human consciousness. He doesn’t intellectualize it. Instead, Nile gently draws this from us through his music. A quiet hallelujah is in order.
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