Streets of New York might not be able to withstand direct scrutiny, but listen to it in the background or with your mind on something else, and it will very often sound like something wonderful.
Willie Nile was an up-and-coming singer-songwriter in the 1980s, but he never really arrived, and then he mostly disappeared for a long time. Now he's back, with pretty much his own record company (00:02:59, which is to be pronounced "two minutes fifty-nine" like in the Clash's "Hitsville U.K.”, so now you know) and a lot of famous friends giving testimonials on the inside of the promo disc: Bono, Lucinda, Lou, Graham, Ian, Little Steven, even Jay Cocks.
I know people who would hate this record just reading the above paragraph. I also know people who will hate it because Willie Nile isn't really very original; his Dylan rip on "Back Home" is pretty blatant, he apes Mellencamp and Springsteen and tons of 1980s British bands all over the place (Del Amitri or someone on "Best Friends Money Can Buy"!), he covers the Clash's cover of "Police on My Back”, he even does a couple of things that sound like the early romantic Pogues. But there's not really a Willie Nile Style to be found, and that will bug a lot of you.
Some others will fault him for being a poser on the politically conscious tip, because the strongest stands he takes here is that terrorism sucks ("Cell Phones Ringing (In the Pockets of the Dead)" commemorates the victims of last year's bombing in Spain) and that we should all learn to live together (the faux-reggae "When One Stands"). For someone who patterns himself after a bunch of political songwriters, shouldn't he aim at bigger targets?
Hell, I even know people who will hate on Willie Nile because he does a song called "The Day I Saw Bo Diddley in Washington Square" and fails to have any actual Bo Diddley in it, neither beats nor description, just a Celtic-folkie-type list song about all the stuff going on in the park that day. WHERE'S THE BO DIDDLEY? Is Nile, these people will say, just throwing around Bo Diddley's name for hipster cachet, when it is clear that he doesn't really care about Bo Diddley at all except maybe that he opened for the Clash once?
Well, there are a lot of reasons to hate this record. But I don't. I actually kind of like it a lot. I'm not worried about the originality aspect, because originality is not exactly the key to the kingdom in and of itself; I'm not worried about politics, because I read stuff on my own, and because "When One Stands" isn't bad for faux-reggae; I don't even care to hate on him for having famous friends, because that's not really here nor there.
Although, yeah, the Bo Diddley thing drives me up a banana tree.
But here's the thing: Streets of New York might not be able to withstand direct scrutiny, but listen to it in the background or with your mind on something else, and it will very often sound like something wonderful. "Game of Fools" has a convincing amount of white-guy soul and a chorus with more hooks than Pirates R Us, and there is some real grit in the guitar attack of "Whole World With You”. And Nile, who is in his 50s, manages to accurately convey the giddy feeling of new love in the might-be-about-teenagers-might-not bouncy pop song "Asking Annie Out”.
I'm not sure he's a wonderful lyricist, but anyone who can deliberately misspell "Sartre" to make it rhyme with "party" is okay by me. I'm not sure he's the best singer in the stable, but I'm pretty impressed by how he manipulates his voice on tunes like "On Some Rainy Day" to make me actually care about what his lyrics are saying. (It might also be that he's on some Shelleyan/bubblegum poetic kick there, talking about underground skies and kisses that cure cancer.) (Or the actually great slide guitar solo, although I don't know who plays it, because the promo disc is kind of skimpy on the band info.)
Am I just THAT hungry for rock music that I can relate to? Have I really lost all my critical senses, that I can truly enjoy an overly derivative record by some guy I've never heard of? Or is there maybe something to that old rockist trope that sincerity and hard work mean something? Or do I just like his weathered voice? Are those seductive drumbeats on the cellphone song leading me to ignore his tendency to overwrite and his occasional corniness? Because I've been listening to this way more than I have to other albums that are obviously "better" and "more original" and "cooler" and trendier.
Maybe… maybe it's just that, either in spite of or because of Willie Nile's limitations, this is a really great rock and roll record. Wouldn't that be a shocker, in 2006?