Willie Nile's style has never been monochromatic, either as a songwriter or a performer, but over the course of a recording career that was launched in 1980, two things have been consistent -- the guy clearly loves rock & roll, and he sure likes guitars (Nile even released an album called House of a Thousand Guitars). So was anyone out there expecting Nile to make an entire album of contemplative, midtempo acoustic numbers built around the guy playing piano? In many respects, If I Were a River upends the average fan's expectations about a Willie Nile album (especially after 2013's decisively rockin' American Ride), although the dramatic force of Nile's songwriting and the passion of his vocals should be more than familiar to anyone who has been listening to his music over the years. Nile has never been afraid to write on a broad emotional scale, and some of the tunes, such as "Song of a Soldier," "Let Me Be the River," and "I Can't Do Crazy (Anymore)," sound a bit overdone when the spare arrangements allow all their melodramatic nooks and crannies to be revealed, which might not be the case with a full band kicking up a fuss behind him. Nile has dressed up a few of these tracks with discrete overdubs -- acoustic guitar, mandolin, synthesizer -- but little here distracts from Nile's voice and piano, and If I Were a River feels like the singer/songwriter album (or MTV Unplugged performance) Nile didn't get around to making in the '80s. The songs allow Nile to indulge his warmer and more sentimental side, though the results seem more like a change of pace than a radical reappraisal of his style, and if he's not afraid to play to the upper balcony, he sounds comfortable on these sessions, with plenty of heart and soul backing up his work. If I Were a River doesn't sound like a typical Willie Nile album, but it certainly has the stamp of his talent and his personality, and it shows he's not afraid to try new things, which isn't often the case for an artist more than three decades after they began making records.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming