Review: Nick Lowe – The Old Magic
by Nick DeRiso
Growing older has made Nick Lowe grayer, a little quieter, but no less clever, no less relevant, and certainly no less off-handedly absorbing. He is the living, breathing, guitar-playing, Buddy Holly shade-wearing embodiment of the old saw about getting better with age.
And that’s saying something. After all, Lowe helped shape the New Wave sound of the late 1970s and ’80s as a producer for Elvis Costello, the Pretenders and Graham Parker, even while establishing his own often overlooked career as a solo act (“Cruel to Be Kind” went to No. 12 in 1979) and as a member of Rockpile. If all of that seems like a long time ago, well, it was. But Lowe has continued putting out thoughtful, largely overlooked recordings, each filled with clever asides and smart hooks.
If there’s anything different, beyond his shock of white hair, it’s that Lowe – the guy who once wrote the angry treatise “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” for Costello – has begun to work in a more wistful palette. The forthcoming The Old Magic, Lowe’s first release since the terrific At My Age from 2007, is no different.
A life now in its sixth decade has imparted a deeper wisdom and, if anything, a sharper lyrical eye. Yet Lowe is still frisky enough to toss a curveball every once in a while. (A Tom T. Hall song? Yes. A Tom T. Hall song). As Lowe sings on the opening “Stoplight Roses”: “Experience should tell you, never get your story too straight.”
Lowe makes it all work. In fact, the timelessly straight-forward The Old Magic, out today on Yep Rock Records, sounds like a record that could have made at any time during the rock era – all chanky-chank guitars, old-fashioned keyboards and rattling train-trestle rhythms. That dovetails perfectly, in a larger sense, with a set that so consistently celebrates the perspective that life belatedly gives us.
It’s not all good news, of course. Hell, a lot of it’s bad. Lowe contemplates death, though in his distinctively wry manner, on the lead single “Checkout Time.” He talks about troubles with love, but in writerly ways that bring you right into the moment, on songs like “House for Sale” and “Poisoned Rose,” written by Costello. Hall’s “Shame on the Rain” is, fittingly, a cloudy-day lament.
But shambling rock numbers like “Somebody Cares for Me” – the only other non-original on Lowe’s 13th solo project, it was written by Jeff West – serve to balance the ledger. “You Don’t Know Me,” boasting a conjunto kind of sway, is this fun little put down. Then there’s the smartly performed bit of ennui found on Lowe’s closing “Til’ the Right Thing Comes Along,” where he expertly dials into the modern generation’s what-the-heck kind of not-quite passions.
Lowe will be the opening act as Wilco launches its U.S. tour on Sept. 13, the same day this new album arrives. The Old Magic was recorded in London with Lowe’s regular backing band: keyboardist Geraint Watkins, guitarist Steve Donnelly and drummer Robert Treherne (a.k.a. Bobby Irwin). Guest musicians included Paul Carrack, Ron Sexsmith and Jimmie Vaughan, among others.
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