Willie Nile loves classic rock and roll. He incorporates licks and lyrical references to the Rolling Stones/Beatles/Bob Dylan songbooks all through the 11 tracks on his latest album, The Day the Earth Stood Still. There are also sonic reminders of Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, and other musicians who mine the same sources. Nile may be paying deference, but he’s also kicking butt. He’s an old-school rocker living in the 21st century and wondering what happened and who knows what’s next.
On the title cut, Nile looks out at the empty streets of Manhattan during the COVID crises and connects it to the old sci-fi film about invaders from space. Everything looks deserted. This isn’t the future we once imagined. It may be worse. Nile is descriptive more than judgmental, and he’s no nihilist. He and his electric guitar rock out. “Klaatu barada nikto,” he sings to close out the song to invoke peace and good vibes. Like the rest of us, Nile really doesn’t know what the alien phrase means, and about the present—well, he is just telling us to be kind while hoping for the best.
Nile isn’t afraid to be silly, such as on the exuberant “Where There’s a Willie There’s a Way” (co-written with Michael Des Barres), or serious as on “The Justice Bell”, dedicated to the Civil Rights activist John Lewis (and co-written with Frankie Lee). It’s Nile’s openness to ideas that leaves him refreshingly unfiltered. He observes the world and wonders where justice is for the corrupt and when things are finally going to change for the better. In the meantime, he’s not sanctimonious. Nile knows he’s no angel. We all have evil impulses.
Nile’s antisocial persona is a person off his meds or the guy who ignores his lover after his passion has ebbed. These make for the most spirited songs because they allow the singer to wallow and spit on the world he has created for himself, even telling St. Peter at Heaven’s Gate to wait while he “uses the can”. The scatological reference is intentionally shocking. Do people even shit in heaven? Nile leaves one wondering.
The album was recorded during the pandemic, with players taking safety precautions. There’s not a female musician on the album that features in his live band. Steve Earle also joins him on the political diatribe “Blood on Your Hands”. Nile is a romantic, and several tracks invoke following one’s heart, although this seems to be meant in a more generic sense than a literal one for a specific lover.
Willie Nile has released more than 20 records over the past 40 years, and when we are not in lockdown, he still tours and plays for live audiences. He’s always been faithful to his muse. His most recent album shares the same spirit that infused his first one back in 1980. Nile is a national treasure who brings rock to the masses, and while he may sing about “The Day the Earth Stood Still” because of the recent pandemic, he’s still moving and grooving.