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.Powered by Sidelines