Melting glaciers and rising tide levels, immigrants, political polarization, species extinction, Thoreau, and — of course — love are all cited and explored throughout veteran rocker Willie Nile’s forthcoming “Children of Paradise.” Yet the album sounds uncommonly upbeat, thanks to the classic rock ‘n’ roll virtues of big hooks, slamming drums, and loud, proud electric guitars.
Although it won’t be officially released (on his own River House label) until July 27, the timely material is likely to dominate Nile’s performance at the Grammy Museum tonight, where he will also talk with Executive Director Scott Goldman. (Nile is appearing Saturday at McCabe’s in Santa Monica too.)
With its tuneful evocation of a mythical place where “the old break free and the young still yearn,” and a “a boy with a fire in his belly” who’s “goin’ ’cross those borders,” the Springsteenian “Children of Paradise” could be taken as a reflection of current headlines. But it’s an old song, co-written with Martin Briley and inspired by director Marcel Carné’s 1943 film of the same name, ringing with power chords and a fervent belief in redemption. A similarly cathartic hopefulness imbues catchy rocker “All Dressed Up and No Place to Go” and “Gettin’ Ugly Out There,” which offsets the sadness of TV news images (“Saw a child refugee drowned on the seashore/ I had to turn it off I couldn’t take it anymore”) with the kind of melodic bounce that invites sing-alongs.
It’s rare now that we hear earnest, irony-free music that seems to celebrate rock ‘n’ roll’s power to rouse and unite as much as the themes of individual songs. Is it old-fashioned? Maybe. But if it’s too much to believe that music can change a cynical world riven by tweet diplomacy, it takes little imagination to envision audiences of various generations swaying to unabashed valentine “Have I Ever Told You” or punching the air in time to “Don’t” (“Don’t let the fuckers kill your buzz”) and “Earth Blues,” which decries “chemical, physical, biological warfare” over urgent guitars and an “Another One Bites the Dust”-style beat. Lyrics are anything but subtle; true to the iconic rock ‘n’ roll he exalts, Nile sports convictions on his leathered sleeve.
Nile’s covered substantial ground while earning his scars, not unlike the considerably more grizzled (and homeless) Greenwich Village subjects whose visages adorn the striking, black-and-white album art created by his partner, photographer Cristina Arrigoni. Consider this his declaration that he has too much to say to exit stage left any time soon.
Willie Nile performs at the Grammy Museum, 800 W. Olympic Blvd., Downtown LA, at 8 p.m. Thursday, June 28; $20. Info: (213) 765-6800. Willienile.com, Grammymuseum.org