When it comes to Nick "Basher" Lowe, my bias leans strongly toward the amazing slabs of rock 'n' pop he performed and produced in his Rockpile days. Jesus of Cool, Labor of Lust, Rockpile's Seconds of Pleasure: all of these discs have provided considerably more than seconds of pleasure in my life since their release in the D.I.Y. era, and I don't see that changing any time soon. Even Lowe's sorta reunion with Rockpile guitarman Dave Edmunds, 1989's Party of One, played off his ability to slip seemingly offhanded, yet sly lyrics onto an energetic roots rock base. To my ears, it's the last purely fun Nick Lowe release.
But "People Change," as the man himself notes in the middle of the aptly titled At My Age (Yep Roc), and yesterday's hard-playin' rocker can mature into a more overtly contemplative crooner. Ever since 1994's The Impossible Bird, Lowe has moved into a moodier country sound, one that owes more to mariachi horns and Geraint Watkins' quiet organ fills than it does Dave Edmunds' rockabilly guitar licks, and Age is the fourth studio release to focus on this approach. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense that the one time bassist for seventies country pubbers Brinsley Schwartz would ultimately turn to a bare-bones country sound, but tell it to the fans who still love "So It Goes."
Though I continue to hold a strong preference for the "Pure Pop" Nick, I've gotta admit that this new disc has grown on me – despite several weeks of active resistance on my part. Of all the stripped down, countrified Lowes (Dig My Mood and The Convincer being the other two in this quartet), Age most consistently matches its sound with theme. This is a middle-aged guy looking back at his own life, at the places that he's been or could've been. Whether adopting the persona of a misogynist Lothario taking his revenge on womankind ("I Trained Her to Love Me"), going through a desk and pondering the young beauty in some old photo ("Long Limbed Girl") or wondering in amazement that his "feckless" self could actually find love ("Hope for Us All"), there's a directness to these songs that probably would've been beyond the reach of the ironic wise-acre who once wrote a Hollywood Babylon-inspired song about an actress suicide devoured by her pet dachshund.
Lowe's more openhearted lyrical approach carries Age even through a couple of its more underwhelming tracks ("Love's Got A Lot to Answer For"). But it really holds on those cuts where the singer/songwriter takes a more overtly soulful tack, looking to Memphis greats like Dan ("I'm Your Puppet") Penn for his inspiration. "Hope" and "Change" provide the big one/two punch here, the latter additionally buoyed by Chrissie Hynde's backing vocals, while a cover of the Uniques' 1965 regional hit "Not Too Long Ago" also bolsters the disc just when it threatens to flag from one too many ruminative country lounge cuts. Lowe may be a mature man o' music these days, but he still maintains enough pop smarts to keep from descending into his own navel.
"If I've done all the things they say I've done," Lowe croons with Nat King Cole-styled smoothness in Age's penultimate track, "I'd be in the ground or on the run." For too many former rockers a retreat from the wild life often seems to come at the expense of their music. Before At My Age, to be honest, I'd have put Lowe in that camp, but damned if the man hasn't proven me wrong. If I'll still wanna play "Cruel to Be Kind" more often than the redemptive "A Better Man," I know there are plenty of occasions when the newer track will speak to me, too. Leave it to a one time half-a-boy-and-half-a-man to show that age doesn't necessarily have to be the ultimate musical killjoy.