The moral of the story is, don’t piss off Jill Sobule…
The genesis of Nostalgia Kills, Sobule’s first record in nine years, was an offhand comment she overheard at a record industry party. Some young whippersnapper of a record executive claimed that singer-songwriters lose it when they turn 40 as they can no longer write impactful, relevant, creative songs. “He is my new nemesis,” says the aggrieved, 50-something singer-songwriter. Well, she owes him a beer, as that little exchange galvanized her into making a rather fine record. It’s hardly a vitriolic, album-length rant about ageism in the music biz, but a collection of some luscious pop tunes, written by someone who really knows their craft.
This album has been “Kickstarted” into being, (incentives included Miss Sobule singing a personalized version of her 1995 hit “I Kissed a Girl” to you over the phone, which is either cute or creepy, depending on your inclination…) and she chose wisely from her bulging Rolodex, for some pals to help her out. X’s John Doe, the MC5’s Wayne Kramer, Richard Barone of the Bongos, That Dog’s Petra Haden and Jellyfish, and Beck’s keyboard virtuoso, Roger Joseph Manning Jr all turn in fine, understated performances here. It’s beautifully produced by Ben Lee. It’s the kind of record you hope that “legacy” artists make but seldom do.
In true, Motown style, the album starts with the single “I Don’t Wanna Wake Up”, a mid-tempo groove, showcasing Sobule’s gently assured vocal style, sets the bar pretty high. The opening line, “Oh my lord, I think I saw the light”, is either a sly nod to Todd Rundgren, producer of her 1990 debut album Things Here Are Different or recognition that it took a pointed comment from some slightly post teenaged record exec to spur her into action. Either way, it’s a cool tune. That’s followed by “Where Do I Begin” which starts off, more than a little like “The Dope Show” by Marilyn Manson. Yep, seriously. The line about “The couch with the unexplained spills” has a little whiff of Antichrist Superstar about it, too. We’re back on safer ground with “I Put My Headphones On”, all fingerpicked guitars and a sunny, ’70s pop melody. If this had been released as a single in June, it would have been the 2018 summer smash for the AM radio generation.
Elsewhere, we get a bluesy meditation on growing older. “The Party’s Over, Party Girl”, with its cool, faux-nightclub sax and world-weary lyric (“Put out your cigarette. You can’t smoke here anymore”) is up there with “Is That All There Is?” in the ennui stakes and “Almost Great” is a quirky, Ukulele strummalong which manages to be cute and not cloying. A hard act to pull off.
Tucked away towards the end of the record, however, is an unexpected gem. The Five Stairsteps’ pop-soul masterpiece “Ooh Child” gets an almost Laura Nyro makeover by Sobule and with extra emphasis on the “things are gonna get easier” line, it seems an emphatic point is being very subtly made. Why rant and rave at a world gone mad, when you can whisper into its’ ear? It’s gorgeous.
Last years superb Aimee Mann album, Mental Illness showed that age doesn’t diminish the power and creativity of a singer-songwriter. Nostalgia Kills backs that up in spades. The title is a kick in the pants to artists who rest on their laurels while staring backward and sleepwalking into the state fair and ’90s-themed package tour circuit. Aside from a very carefully chosen and apposite cover version, Sobule has made an album which draws from her past, but points towards her future. She hasn’t gone Djent or teamed up with 21 Pilots, but she’s made a great record that’s sort of timeless. So thanks Mr. Loudmouth Record Executive, without you, we wouldn’t have Nostalgia Kills. And that would be really sad.