Nick Lowe: Taking the low-key approach
The English singer-songwriter isn't too impressed with today's music. Instead, he's doing what he does best: elegantly mature, sophisticated pop songs.
Nick Lowe, lauded in many quarters as one of pop music's master craftsmen of the last three decades, says he hears a lot of pretty good music these days. And that's not good.
“Sad to say, it seems everyone can make a pretty good record in their bedroom today,” the 62-year-old English singer and songwriter said recently. “You go buy the kit and you can make a pretty good record. ‘Pretty good' is the new ‘terrible.' In a tsunami of ‘pretty good' stuff, you can't find the really good stuff. So I've kind of given up looking.”
Instead, Lowe focuses on continuing to hone his own skills, the results of which are evident on his wryly (as usual) titled new album, “The Old Magic,” which comes out Tuesday as he embarks on a string of North American shows opening for Wilco. After that, he'll do a handful of solo shows, including Oct. 7 at Largo.
As with his previous studio collection, 2007's “At My Age,” the new album is a collection of elegantly mature, astutely sophisticated pop songs from an artist who clearly is no longer one of the new kids on the block — and utterly pleased not to be.
It includes “House for Sale,” a country-leaning ballad with the same kind of resigned anguish as George Jones' classic breakup tune “The Grand Tour”; in “Stoplight Roses,” he explores the desperation of one whose idea of an apology is a spray of sagging flowers bought at a traffic intersection; and “I Read a Lot,” in which he ruminates on the way he spends his time after being abandoned by a lover.
His always-catchy melodies first caught the ear of the pop world in the late '70s as a musical mate of Elvis Costello, Graham Parker and others steeped in American roots music who were blindly lumped in with the U.K. punk-rock explosion.
Lowe flirted with mainstream success with his own effervescent singles such as “So It Goes” and “Cruel to Be Kind” and as the writer of “(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” which became a cornerstone of Costello's repertoire. But his first two albums, “Pure Pop for Now People” (his 1978 debut retitled from the original English title “Jesus of Cool” for U.S. release out of record company fear of controversy) and “Labour of Lust,” never broke into the top 30 stateside. Both have recently been reissued.
He also was part of Rockpile, a hard-driving band also featuring Welsh guitarist-singer-producer Dave Edmunds that became a cult favorite on both sides of the Atlantic. Despite its storied history, Lowe isn't stumping for a reunion.
“That [subject] hasn't come up for quite a long time,” he said. “I'm lucky enough that I've got my own thing going. If I had to put corn on the table and shoes on the children's feet, I'd do whatever I had to do, but it's a really unedifying and unpleasant thought having to do that again: to jump up and down, play at that volume and also the enormous amount of drink that would have to be consumed to be able to put up with each other.
“I am always looking out to try and broaden my appeal, but I'm under no illusions about the state of the pop business today,” he added.
That business doesn't exhibit a great deal of interest in Lowe's low-key approach. Many of his current songs have a deceptively casual quality about them — something he said requires intense work.
“It's an enormous amount of work to make a song sound like you've just knocked it off,” said the man who spent a little over a decade married to June Carter's daughter, Carlene, which also made him Johnny Cash's son-in-law. “I do work very hard getting the balance right. I want to keep [the listener] entertained without going over into something that's too maudlin or too mawkish, because we're sort of grown-ups now.
“I work very, very hard on my tunes. As you can hear, they're the same length as most of the songs from that era [of early rock], the length of what you could fit on a 45 rpm single: 2:30, 2:45 or 3 minutes if it's a slow one.
The effort has consistently yielded songs that have earned Lowe the admiration of other songwriters.
“I think he's doing his best work as he gets older,” said singer-songwriter John Hiatt, who drafted Lowe to play bass along with guitarist Ry Cooder and drummer Jim Keltner on his 1987 breakthrough album “Bring the Family.” A few years later, the quartet resurfaced as Little Village. “He just gets better and better. I remain hopeful for myself.”
Despite Lowe's consternation about the “pretty good” state of pop music, there are some exceptions. “I love [Canadian singer-songwriter] Ron Sexsmith. I think he's really great, a fantastic writer. But I'm married to the past a bit; most of the people I like are all dead. I'm always pleased to run across something that's good. I like Lady Gaga -- I think she's really cracking.”
-- Randy Lewis
Photo: Nick Lowe. Credit: Dan Burn-Forti