Soft Rock for Yesterday’s People
It seems likely that every review that will crop up like bunny rabbits in print or on the Web of Nick Lowe’s latest and 13th album, The Old Magic, will include the opening line from the lead single “Checkout Time”: “I’m 61-years-old now / Lord, I never thought I’d see 30”. (For the record, Lowe is now 62.) Few, however, will probably include the lines that directly follow: “Though I know this road is still some way to go / I can’t help thinking on / Will I be beloved and celebrated for my masterly climb / Or just another bum when it comes to checkout time?” It’s a bit of a dark statement, that one of the post-punk icons from the late ‘70s is belly gazing as to whether his career has been a successful one. Long time fans, of course, will need no argument that Lowe is one of the seminal figures of British music. Starting out with the pub rock band Brinsley Schwarz, Lowe had a great career that envelopes production work with the likes of Elvis Costello, work with Dave Edmunds in the briefly lived Rockpile, and two utterly classic late ‘70s solo albums which are distillations of punk, country and rock influences: 1978’s Jesus of Cool (which was titled Pure Pop for Now People in the U.S. and had a slightly different running order) and 1979’s Labour of Lust. And listing those achievements would be only scratching the surface of the landmark career of “Basher”, so nicknamed for his ability to crank out songs in the recording studio.
However, if you only know Lowe’s work from that pivotal late ‘70s era—which might be a given for younger fans seeing that his long out-of-print albums from that time period have recently been lovingly reissued in recent years—The Old Magic might come across as a bucket of water thrown directly into your face. Gone is the bracing, rocking rhythms of yore, replaced by soft, wistful and utter laid-back slices of almost cosmopolitan ‘60s country. In fact, The Old Magic reminds me a lot of Willie Nelson’s 1978 album Stardust in that it presents what is essentially country or roots music as a backbone against an utterly soft shoe, almost geriatric pop approach. If the latter day records by Wilco could be characterized as “dad rock” as one reviewer at another Web site has famously done, The Old Magic comes across as “grandpa rock” in comparison. It’s clear that Lowe is trying to gracefully grow old, and, as he himself has said in a New York Daily News piece quoted in the always reliable and dependable Wikipedia, his greatest fear in recent years seems to be “sticking with what you did when you were famous. 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. That’s revolting and rather tragic.” So The Old Magic is what it is—and you have to approach it on its own terms, ignoring the energetic and caustic songs written well before Lowe was 30 years old. I’ll be honest with you: I hated this approach when I first heard it. However, The Old Magic is an album that gradually creeps up on you, and has plenty of rewards for those who can take the now white-haired Lowe basically acting his age.
One thing that hasn’t changed is that Lowe, even in his early ‘60s, possesses an acerbic wit. On opening ballad “Stoplight Roses”, Lowe offers the wry lines “You’ve practiced and rehearsed it / But in your heart you know it’s too late / Experience should tell you / Never get your story too straight”. Meanwhile, “House for Sale” is a scathing kiss-off to a lover: “House for sale / I’ve had enough / I’ll send a van / To get my stuff / House for sale / I’m leaving like I’m getting out of jail”. Lowe delivers those lines with an unbridled enthusiasm; you can practically feel the joy in his voice. Certainly, listeners might have the mental image of Lowe walking away, jumping up and clicking his heels at the end of the track. He also references his biggest hit (for Elvis Costello) with the song’s final lines: “Because with time, care, cash / Peace, love and understanding / It can be as good as new.” Lowe might not be interested in recreating the sounds of his youth, but it seems like he hasn’t forgotten from where he came from.
There is a dark quality to the album, too, as Lowe ruminates on the ravages of growing older. On “House for Sale”, he makes an allusion of an old house to the debilitating effects of age on his body: “Well, the roof’s giving in to the weather / And the windows rattle and moan / Paint is peeling / Cracks in the ceiling / Whatever has happened to my happy home?” Elsewhere, Lowe sounds forlorn on the searing, string-sweeten ballad “I Read a Lot”: “Lonely / Isn’t the word for me now / Blue / Doesn’t describe it somehow.” There’s a palpable theme on The Old Magic of fearing of growing alone into old age, even though the record is basically a seemingly paradoxical rumination of the failure of relationships to sustain oneself into the golden years of one’s life. What’s more, Lowe appears to have a coded message for fans expecting the glories of the ‘70s revisited on the aptly titled cover of “You Don’t Know Me At All”: “You’ve got me pigeonholed / Catalogued, and bought and sold / Oh, but truth be told / I don’t quite fit your mould / But there’s many sides and angles that you haven’t seen / And since you haven’t looked / You don’t know what I mean.”
If you can get past the fact that the music here is smooth and carefully refined, there are joys to be had on this 11 song collection. There are three covers—Elvis Costello’s “The Poisoned Rose”, “Shame on the Rain” by Tom T. Hall, and Jeff West’s “You Don’t Know Me At All”—and Lowe puts his own trademark, wistful stamp on them all, blending them seamlessly into the folds of The Old Magic. And while it feels funny coming first in the line up, “Stoplight Roses” is a sorrowful, age-appropriate track full of ache and craving. “Checkout Time” has a nice country shuffle to it and, elsewhere, “Restful Feeling” has a sleazy Las Vegas vibe, filtered through the ‘60s pop of Burt Bacharach—you can practically feel tiny bubbles floating in the background. “Somebody Cares For Me” is a nice Farfisa organ slouch complete with lurching saxophones. Album closer “’Til the Real Thing Comes Along” has a lilting Belle and Sebastian quality to it. Lowe has surrounded himself with crackerjack musicians to round out these songs and make them whole and complete, which includes guest appearances by Canadian songsmith Ron Sexsmith, Paul Carrack (whom Lowe has produced in the past) and blues guitarist Jimmie Vaughan, brother of the late Stevie Ray.
While The Old Magic doesn’t recapture the effortless rock and roll of Lowe’s youth, it does offer an appealing snapshot of an artist who clearly still has it all of these years later. The title of the record is actually fitting as, by mining the seductive sounds of country balladry with old-fashioned pop, it does encapsulate the feel and slickness of artists of the past, particularly ‘60s-era Elvis Presley, among others. The Old Magic is an album you have to take some time with, particularly if you’re only really familiar with Lowe’s classic material from the ‘70s, but the patience associated with watching an artist grow and mature gracefully after a 30-plus-year span does pay off in dividends. The Old Magic doesn’t really aspire to the great heights of Lowe’s past, but it is a portrait of an artist as an aging, graceful statesman of British rock. On this album, Lowe is not simply retreading ideas and sounds of his youth, but pushing his way forward toward being an active musician just a few years shy of collecting his pension. And while some things may change, The Old Magic shows that not only does Lowe possess an acidic pen, he still has the ability to craft memorable, hummable tunes. For that, fans both old and new, should feel blessed.
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// Notes from the Road
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