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Music Review: Nick Lowe – At My Age

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Six years since his critically acclaimed The Convincer wormed its soulful way into our hearts, we've waited for new music from Nick Lowe. So now he finally stirs himself from semi-retirement to release a new album, and just to make sure no one buys it, he sticks on the old-fogey title At My Age. The cover? It’s a caricature of a skinny white-haired gent clutching a cup of coffee. Oooh, yes, I’ll take that instead of Justin Timberlake, thank you very much.

But for those of us who refuse to be deterred – who know that Nick Lowe is one of the wittiest and most subtle craftsmen in pop music – At My Age is deeply, deeply satisfying. The only problem is — like the old joke about Chinese food — an hour later, I want more.

It’s ironic that Lowe’s latest should be released on the same day in the U.K. (the US release date is June 24) as Paul McCartney’s Memory Almost Full. How typical of Nick to get overshadowed like this. It’s like a re-run of the 1970s, when Nick’s band Brinsley Schwarz was the opening act for Wings. The two musicians have a lot in common. Both are left-handed bassists. Both have a bone-deep faith in the value of the three-minute pop song. But whereas Macca’s trademark has always been sweet (some would say treacly) sincerity, Lowe’s is wry, self-deprecating irony. Where McCartney demands our love, Lowe flinches away from it.

Far from being the “godfather of punk” some believe (sure, he was house producer for Stiff Records, but he never released a punk album of his own), Nick Lowe has always had country roots, not only with Brinsley Schwarz but with the raucous rockabilly combo Rockpile. Increasingly these days, he layers on classic R&B and even a touch of jazz to the mix, with a mellower, more laid-back groove. What hasn’t slowed down is his delicious word-play, or his inventive sense of rhythm. Both are as supple and quick as ever.

His main theme — indeed, the theme of most pop music — is of course still love. Though trust Nick Lowe to home in on the comic aspects of desire (cases in point: “Cruel To Be Kind,” “I Knew The Bride When She Used To Rock ‘N’ Roll,” “All Men Are Liars”). But love rarely works out – that’s the shocking news Nick Lowe has discovered at his age (for the record, white hair notwithstanding, he’s only 58). We should be astonished whenever love does triumph – astonished, grateful, and very, very afraid.

Well, I’ve tallied it up, and At My Age has three positive love songs — a pretty high total for a Nick Lowe album. But don’t worry, they’re all completely non-gushy. Balanced against this are two baleful break-up songs; three snarky relationships-on-the-rocks numbers; one dogged I’m-gonna-make-you-love-me song; one longing-for-a-lost-girlfriend tune; and one funny loser-in-love lament (a Nick Lowe speciality).

And then of course there’s the uncategorizeable “I Trained Her To Love Me,” the confessions of a misogynistic S.O.B. addicted to serial heartbreaking. “And I’m gonna start working on another after this,” he warns us darkly, “And when I get her in a state of bliss / Betray her with a kiss.” It’s outrageous, unsettling, and very funny. For this alone you should buy the album.

On one hand, you get an R&B charmer like “Hope For Us All” (“But if even I, a feckless man / Who’s thrown away every single chance he’s ever had / Can find someone to check his fall / There must be hope for us all”). Here the raspy quaver in Lowe’s seasoned voice makes this against-all-odds romantic reprieve even more touching. But it’s balanced by “People Change,” a funky meditation on the inevitability of relationship meltdowns. “Prepare yourself for it / Or get bit,” Nick quips nonchalantly, with brassy back-up vocals by Chrissy Hynde. And in case you didn’t get the point, he follows that up with two more rueful complaints, the Charlie Feathers cover “A Man In Love” and the weathered sounding ballad “Love’s Got A Lot To Answer For,” with its melancholy New Orleans horns.

You have to be older than 23 to be this reliably cynical about love, that’s for sure. Even the gently lilting acoustic number, “Rome Wasn’t Built In a Day,” has a stubborn weariness as he contemplates how long it’ll take to wear down a woman he’s pursuing. Lowe slips into a jazz ensemble for “The Other Side Of The Coin,” where the retro sound gives the song’s narrator an aura of smoking-jacket suavity, even as he fires off a vicious parting salvo to his ex-lover. Geraint Watkins splashes of cocktail lounge piano work perfectly here.

Okay, it’s true, Nick Lowe doesn’t turn it up to eleven anymore (unlike his protégée Elvis Costello, who is still known to crank out a blistering rendition of Lowe’s “What So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding”). But volume and tempo are severely overrated in my book. I’d rather have intelligence and heart any day. For some 15 years now, Nick Lowe has been distilling his own musical idiom, one that defies genre. Let’s just call it pure pop and drink it in.

Just promise me one thing. Don’t make us wait another six years, Nick. We need you too much.

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About Holly Hughes

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Nice review Holly. I kind of miss Lowe’s “Pure Pop For Now People” days–but he has aged very gracefully. I’ll have to check this one out now that both of us are all grown up.

    -Glen

  • http://siefert.blogspot.com/ Thomas Siefert

    Just got it today, very good on the first spin.
    The people who called “The Impossible Bird”, “Dig My Mood” and “The Convincer” a trilogy, was wrong, so far it’s a quadrilogy.

  • http://www.butterflyfiction.com/journal/ Connie Phillips

    Congrats! This article has been forwarded to the Advance.net websites and Boston.com.

  • http://www.thesonginmyheadtoday.blogspot.com Holly Hughes

    Thanks, Connie!

    Thomas, I totally agree. And he can make it a pentology if he wants to — I’ll be first in line to buy it.

  • http://www.superamanda.blogspot.com/ Super Amanda

    Nick Lowe is so sexy, whomever had his baby is so lucky it makes my bra burst with envy.

  • http://www.thesonginmyheadtoday.blogspot.com Holly Hughes

    Umm, interesting critical perspective, Amanda…

    And while we’re talking about Nick Lowe’s bad luck with release dates, a friend pointed out to me the release date of The Convincer: September 11, 2001.

  • http://siefert.blogspot.com/ Thomas Siefert

    Hmm, no sign of a new CD from Nick Lowe yet.

    His visit at Daryl Hall can almost make up for it.

  • http://thesonginmyheadtoday.blogspot.com Holly A Hughes

    Oooh, yes, I love the episode with Nick. Though I think I read somewhere that Daryl has since sold that lovely house.

    In Nick’s most recent US concerts this past fall he was certainly performing a number of new songs, and mentioned having been in the recording studio again. Fingers crossed for a 2011 release!

  • http://siefert.blogspot.com/ Thomas Siefert

    I went and saw him twice when I lived in London.
    Once at the Royal Festival Hall on the Southbank and the second time in The Royal Albert Hall.

    This clip must have been recorded from very near where we sat. My wife is convinced that it is my voice you can hear in the final split second at the end of the clip.