With the release of his new album, Children of Paradise, Willie Nile once again proves himself to be an alchemist of incredible talents. Not only is he able to spin the raw iron of ideas into songs of pure gold, his lyrics manage to capture everything from the poignancy to the angst of the world around him.
Nile has always been an exceptional songwriter, able to look around him and create material which is both thought provoking and a lot of fun to listen to. He’s equally comfortable singing a solo ballad, either accompanying himself on piano or guitar, or rocking the house down with his band. Somehow he’s managed to take the New York City Greenwich Village folk scene and marry it seamlessly to the punk sound and ethos that came out of CBGBs in the 1970s.
That being said, this album is much more aligned with the punk side of Nile’s character as it reflects his distress at the state of the world today. Everything from climate change, “Earth Blues”, corporate greed, “Don’t”, to angry statements of defiance against the status quo, “I Defy”, are covered with vigor and intelligence.
Some like “Don’t”, the disc’s third song, are simple statements encouraging people to fight back against the corruption and greed around them. With a simple but direct chorus: “Don’t let the fuckers kill your buzz/Don’t let the fuckers kill your buzz/Don’t let the fuckers turn you into suckers/ Don’t let the fuckers kill your buzz”, the song encourages resistance to the exploitation of the “Land of the Free” by those who only seek to suck it dry in the name of profits.
While the bursts of righteous anger from this song and “I Defy” are fun and inspiring, Nile’s ability as a songwriter is even more on display with tracks like the album’s titular piece, “Children of Paradise”. Its actually a song he co-wrote a number of years ago with Martin Briley and was inspired by the movie of the same name.
The song feels like a ode to those who have fallen through the cracks of society, the homeless, the poor, the mentally ill, and those who just simply don’t fit. “And when the night is falling/You can see the shadows crawling/As the church bell strikes eleven/Two strangers reach for heaven/Say a prayer for the children of Paradise/Born naked in a world of fire and ice.”
However, it’s not only the words which are powerful, it’s how Nile delivers them which gives them their real strength. The passion driving his voice and propelling this, and the rest of the recording’s songs, make them sound like they were pulled from the depths of his soul. Of course it doesn’t hurt that it also sounds like the lyrics and music enjoy the type of symbiotic relationship where one appears to have naturally evolved from the other.
Nile’s music has never lacked for passion or intensity and this album is no exception. Yet here he seems to have been able to find another gear and ramp up the intensity even higher. He’s managed to capture the turmoil brewing not only in his own country but around the world. As he says in the 6th track on the disc, “Gettin’ Ugly Out There”, “It’s gettin’ ugly out there it’s getiin’ darker I swear/People fightin’ everywhere somebody say a prayer/It’s gettin’ ugly out there”.
Yet in spite of the storms brewing this disc is strangely up lifting. Perhaps it’s because he also includes songs like “Secret Weapon” and “Rock and Roll Sister”, both of which are life affirming and positive in outlook. While the latter is a song praising all the women he’s known who live and breath rock and roll the former reminds us how the love between two people can be the best shelter against the storms of the world. “Let me take you in my arms we’ll stay the nighttime through/I want to be your secret weapon too.”
Nile has been referred to as a troubadour and even the unofficial poet laureate of New York City. However I think the West African term griot is more appropriate for what he does with his music. For the griots are the keepers of their people’s history. Through song they tell the stories of the people who surround them and remind everybody of where they come from.
The impression of Nile being the storyteller of his environment is probably strengthened by Cristina Arrigoni’s wonderful photographs of street people who reside in Nile’s Greenwich neighbourhood in New York adorning the album’s cover and its accompanying booklet. With these photos Nile is reminding us there is far more to our story than we sometimes like to admit.
With Children of Paradise Nile has given us not only an album perfectly suited to our times, but a collection of great songs. Nile is one of the songwriters out there who can walk that fine line of creating music which is both socially conscience and can rock your socks off. This record should be at the top of your to buy list when its released on July 27 2018.
(Article originally posted at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Willie Nile - Children of Paradise)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.