Nick Lowe had one fear about growing old in pop.
“I didn’t want to become one of those thinning-haired, jowly old geezers who still does the same shtick they did when they were young, slim and beautiful,” he says. “That’s revolting and rather tragic. Sticking with what you did when you were famous is something I had a major dread about.”
So he did something entirely different. The man originally known as one of the architects of the new wave sound of the `70s - having served as house producer for the legendary Stiff Records, as a pioneer of neo-power pop in his solo albums, and as a rockabilly revivalist in his work with the supergroup Rockpile - remade himself entirely in his middle years.
Lowe’s recent albums, epitomized by the new “At My Age,” moved him out of the realms of ironic pop and animated rock and into the role of a worldly balladeer, specializing in grave vocals and graceful tunes. Lowe’s four most recent solo albums mine the wealth of American roots music, drawing on vintage country, soul and R&B to create an elegant mix of his own.
In works like 2002’s brilliant “The Convincer” and the new CD, Lowe has found a new forte in wise, understated and darkly funny musings on the inevitability of romantic ruin. This, even though the last few years of his life have taken a few happy turns. Since his prior CD, Lowe stumbled into a committed love, then, just as haphazardly, two years ago became a father for the first time at age 56.
As a self-confessed “lifelong selfish pig,” Lowe says he wasn’t looking for love. “Suddenly it came along, and you are powerless to resist,” he says.
Having a child came as an even bigger shock. “I’d thought I had some note that excused me from fatherhood. But then I thought, `Wait a minute, this could be really fantastic.’ I’m not really a devoted father, and I don’t have the faintest idea what I’m doing. But he is a great little chap.”
Along with his new lives and loves, Lowe lately experienced the other side of life as well. Both of his parents died in the last few years. But Lowe didn’t write a word about it on the album. “I don’t want to burden the public with that,” he says.
While Lowe adds that “it’s no fun to lose someone you love,” he believes his parents’ passing was hardly tragic. “They were very old, and they had fantastic lives,” he says. “In my mother’s case, she practically danced to the crematorium.”
Lowe decided to stress lovelorn songs because it’s “more fun to sing songs about being fed up. They’re just easier to write. It’s much harder to write optimistic songs that don’t make you feel like you’ve just been force-fed cream cakes.”
The new album features some of Lowe’s most jaundiced love songs to date. “I’m past the hearts-and-flowers stage,” he affirms. “It’s quite hard not to be cynical about love at this point.”
In the rockabilly romp “The Club,” Lowe essentially says to a person wincing from rejection, “Well, what did you expect?” In the gorgeous soul-tinged “People Change” he sings of love’s fickle flow: “Save your tears/you’re gonna need `em/Cuz for certain/you’re gonna be bleedin’.”
But the song that may get the biggest rise out of people is the country ballad “I Trained Her to Love Me.” Here a man boasts about luring women into relationships just to wreck them.
“The song gets the most unbelievable reaction when I sing it live,” Lowe says. “Most of the sisters know what I’m talking about and think it’s sympathetic. The males punch the air, as if I’m striking a blow for them. To play that song live is like chucking a hand grenade into the crowd.”
Many new songs deal with looking back at life with disappointment. “Regrets - I’ve had a lot,” Lowe laughs, tweaking the “My Way” cliche about having had just a few.
Another motif on this album paints the narrator as a practiced cad. Lowe says he’s had tendencies in that direction but emphasizes that his songs “are full of lies. As a songwriter, I make stuff up.”
Still, there’s no denying the basic truth of his sentiments. In “Love’s Got a Lot to Answer For,” he takes deadly aim at Cupid’s disappointments. Lowe’s dry-eyed delivery only makes it more heartbreaking.
Readings like this don’t just draw on a full life of experience, they demand it. As such, Lowe feels he could have tapped these feelings only now. “The accepted wisdom in pop music is that you’re fantastic when you start out and you just keep getting worse. I think I started off (crap) and got better.”
For that reason, the singer says he’s thrilled that modern pop supports so many older stars. “When I was starting out, there was no such thing as a 30-year-old pop star. Now there’s no end to them. No one cares that Neil Young or Bob Dylan is in his 60s. Kids love those guys.”
In Lowe’s case, age hasn’t only brought deeper music but a more philosophical view. “Right now,” he says, “I’m just glad that I’m still here - and still learning.”
// Notes from the Road
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