When musicians enter their fourth or fifth decade in the business, is growing old gracefully even an option? An aging army of heroes from the ’60s and ’70s have been trying to come up with ways to stay relevant, or at least keep their fans interested enough to take a chance on their new records.
Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen have done it, but the odds of a 15th or 20th album being a career pinnacle are stacked heavily against anyone. Paul McCartney and Van Morrison release new albums regularly and are lucky enough to get praise simply for not embarrassing themselves. Rod Stewart plundered old standards for several albums, then turned his eye to covering 1970s AM-radio staples, realizing that no one wanted to hear a new song by Rod Stewart. Elvis Costello, a bit younger but no less in danger of artistic irrelevance, relied on diversion, releasing half a dozen albums of wildly different styles so far this decade. He’s done collaborations, classical, moody torch songs and so on. He even managed to make one rock album.
Costello’s frequent producer and friend Nick Lowe used to throw the changeup with the best of them. In fact, listening to his greatest-hits album, Basher, always seemed a little disorienting because the country, new wave, pop and retro songs didn’t seem like they could all come from a single pen, let alone one voice. The guy who wrote “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love & Understanding?” also produced the first album by the Damned, and was playing in bands with John Hiatt and Ry Cooder. Even if you liked Nick Lowe a lot, there were half a dozen permutations of him you probably didn’t care for.
But over the course of his four most recent studio albums, Lowe has settled into a comfortable groove that has seen him — remarkably — produce some of his best work. His latest, the appropriately titled At My Age (Lowe is 58), closely follows the path he set out on with 1994’s The Impossible Bird.
It’s a deceptively basic formula: Write a dozen or so country-influenced ruminations on love and life. Showcase the songs with stripped-down, soulful arrangements using horns and acoustic guitar, not too heavy on the backing vocals, and deliver them with the relaxed confidence of Dean Martin’s mellowest sides. Simple, but it’d be hard as hell for anyone to swing who doesn’t possess Lowe’s arsenal of skills. The man has written, produced and sung more classics (and would-be classics) than artists twice as commercially successful as Lowe. He is, quite simply, very good at his job.
Three songs in particular knock me out every time. “Love’s Got a Lot to Answer For” showcases his perfect blend of lyrical prowess and vocal delivery, opening with a hushed acoustic guitar, piano and horns. The guy singing it has been beaten down, but you can’t help loving the loser. To take nothing away from Lowe’s version, if Roy Orbison were still around to interpret it (and to take it up a couple octaves), the rendition would bring down the house.
In the next song, “Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day,” Lowe recasts himself as a lover with a job to do, made tougher because the object of his affection is unaware of him. “You don’t know it/But I made my mind up/You’ll wind up in my arms.” The song seems like it’s been floating in the ether for decades, just waiting for someone to pluck it out and put it on tape.
And that’s the key with the songs on At My Age, as well as three previous albums. While other singers may mine the American Songbook of Kern and Gershwin to tug at their audience’s heartstrings, Nick Lowe is writing brand-new chapters.
He’s also been taking his time. It’s been six years since The Convincer, and while the country-influenced sound hasn’t changed much, Lowe was hit with several life-changing events. His father died, he became a father himself for the first time, and shortly after that his mother died. June and Johnny Cash, who were Lowe’s in-laws for many years, also died between these records. It was Lowe who wrote “The Beast in Me,” which was the centerpiece of Johnny Cash’s career-reinvigorating American Recordings.
Though “The Beast in Me” sounds written for someone older, someone possessing more personal demons than Lowe himself, the beauty of the song is that it doesn’t necessarily need an authoritative voice to carry the words. “The Other Side of the Coin” originally appeared on Solomon Burke’s Don’t Give Up on Me, from 2002. Burke, who had decades’ worth of career and personal triumphs and tragedies, lived inside that song. He requested no pity or forgiveness, just understanding. Lowe finally records his own version here, and remarkably, it’s every bit as affecting, every bit as honest.
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The brevity of these songs (only one goes over three minutes), the lack of solos or fancy adornments, makes the album sound like it could have as easily been made in 1957 as 2007. But Lowe may have an ulterior motive for the straightforward production: These songs are just waiting to be discovered by other singers.
Ten years from now, maybe sooner, some musician on the back side of his career will be trying to figure out how to reinvent himself as a wiser and more distinguished presence. Some smart manager or producer will say, “I’ve got just the song for you,” and pull At My Age off his shelf. It almost doesn’t matter which song gets picked. Any of them could do the trick.
NICK LOWE | At My Age | YepRoc
An audio stream of the album can be found on the Web ?version of this article at www.laweekly.com/music.