Beauty in the Beast

The mellow and wonderful travails of Nick Lowe, the eternally heartbroken heartbreaker

At My Age, Nick Lowe's fourth straight utterly fantastic sad-sack country record, has a benevolent, whimsical, grandfatherly air that's both sincere and devilishly devious—a jovial wink to distract you as he reaches around to pinch your ass. Daughters, lock yourselves up: Though the Jesus of Cool's testaments are older now, he's still got sin on his mind, unoriginal as it may be. Like Akon, he wants to love you. You already know.

Casual deviance—whether moral, lyrical, sexual, or melodic—has always been his thing, whether expressed in terrible puns (see, to cite one of myriad examples, "Time Wounds All Heels" off 1983's The Abominable Showman) or in more macabre fare: Jesus of Cool, his brilliant, offensively catchy 1978 solo debut, climaxes with "Marie Provost," a chipper, tambourine-driven tale of a down-and-out actress who is eaten by a dog. This is not a metaphor—the cops show up and puke and everything. And Nick, evidently a former paramour of Marie's, regards the scene with a flippancy perhaps inappropriate for the occasion:

She was a winner
Who became a doggie's dinner
She never meant that much to me

Winsomely depressed and handsomely depraved
photo: Dan Burn-Forti
Winsomely depressed and handsomely depraved

Contrast this with the wistfulness that Nick shows another, perhaps better-fated former paramour nearly 30 years later on At My Age's "Long Limbed Girl." Over a loping country shuffle—twangy guitar, soothing organ, a touch of banjo, a few overexcitable piano runs, and jaunty horn blasts—Nick stumbles across a forgotten memento: "It was a picture of a girl/Tall and slender as a willow tree/And she had her arms 'round me." The way the music jolts and momentarily bounces excitedly in place on that last line betrays Lowe's always-extant songwriting mastery; the slight strains and cracks in his normally soft and soothing tenor as he sings "When I think back in my mind/A sweet memory I find/But the edges are starting to curl" betrays a sentimentality he might not've had back when he was firing off absurdist pop songs about castrating Castro and romancing sexy telephone operators. He wonders what became of her with convincing compassion and concern–a sort of sonic Google search. Call off the dogs.

This is Nick's second coming. Tagged as a Godfather of Punk in spirit if not sound (too clean-cut, too poppy, not enough piercings), the 58-year-old Brit is perhaps best known for his associations: house badass at Stiff Records, producer of early Elvis Costello, the Pretenders, the Damned . . . even the Fabulous Thunderbirds! His mighty "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" alone enshrines him as songwriting royalty; Elvis's version made him famous, while Curtis Stigers's version, enshrined on the gazillion-selling Bodyguardsoundtrack, made him (even more) rich. Starting with Jesus of Cool, Nick started firing off album after album of what that debut's U.S. title called Pure Pop for Now People; over time, it took on more of a Nashvillian edge, which burst into full flower on the 1994 comeback The Impossible Bird.

It is here that our tale truly begins. Bird has the lovely but grim "The Beast in Me" (used to tremendous effect in the first-ever Sopranos episode) and "True Love Travels Down a Gravel Road," which perfectly straddles the line between corny Hallmark sentiment and brutal, profound truth–a favorite trick. On 1998's Dig My Mood (great title), head straight for "Failed Christian," a cover revealing Nick at his darkest, most desiccated, most direly Dylan-esque; on 2001's The Convincer (my favorite), feel sorry for lovelorn Nick as he can't be bothered to do his laundry ("Lately I've Let Things Slide") and blithely curses the heavens ("Cupid Must Be Angry").

At My Age continues the cycle, unfolding in much the same way, wistful naptime Southern comfort, quiet and monolithic, like a highway-bound Buick the size of a battleship. The horns are new, along with a light Motown swing. But Nick's newfound reverie on "Long Limbed Girl" is only half the story–he's even more diabolical now, too. For the very next track is "I Trained Her to Love Me," a bit faster but otherwise sonically unchanged, and yet an emotional 180: Now he's picking up girls, wooing them, and then cruelly dumping them at the height of their affections out of pure spite and revenge against the fairer sex. "If you think that it's depraved/And I should be ashamed/So what?" he smirks, theatrically popping those last two words like a slightly less hammy William Shatner. Then comes "The Club," and suddenly he's the victim of such depravity, backed now by a go-go swagger as he urges us to join his organization of woe, a sort of support group for those all over whom "These Boots Were Made for Walkin' " walked.

And back and forth we go: current lover, victim, former lover, victimizer. Deeper into At My Age, he again attacks the Hallmark/profound divide, turning clichés ("People Change," "Rome Wasn't Built in a Day," "The Other Side of the Coin") into momentary pangs of melancholic beauty. There's a sweeping retrospective tone to some of it–"If I'd done all the things they say I've done/I'd be in the ground or on the run," he muses–but this is no epitaph: It looks forward just as often as backward. Title aside, "I Trained Her to Love Me" uses the present tense as well–I will strike again, Nick warns, eyeing his next conquest, or his next oppressor, even now, as you read or listen. Even at his age, he is a man worth seducing, and succumbing to.

 
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