Nick Lowe: “The Old Magic”
It wouldn’t quite be fair to say that Nick Lowe has been making the same album over and over again since 1994, but I do think I can safely say this: If ever there was an artist for whom it would be perfectly acceptable to keep making the same record, it’s Nick the Knife. The albums he’s made, from The Impossible Bird up through the new The Old Magic, are just that good, just that charming, that being allowed into their presence is always welcome. I can’t imagine it getting old.
And besides: They’re really not the same record, just variations on a theme. Some artists thrive on reinvention, but Lowe pulls of something subtler and, in many ways, more impressive. He keeps finding new wrinkles in a signature sound. He makes albums that may sound, on paper, like they’re basically the same thing, but each record has its own character, its own distinguishing mood and stylistic emphases that make not for a repetitive body of work, but a richly consistent one. The albums are all charmers. They are warm and inviting, and they mine the same fertile crossroads of country, soul, roots-rock, and R&B. Within that framework, The Convincer is an album of late-night seduction. Dig My Mood features stormy introspection. And so forth.
The Old Magic is, I think, the most melancholy of all these albums—which is not to say that it’s dour or depressing. Its humor is the most painful, the most tempered with heartbreak—which is not to say that it isn’t funny. It is, indeed, impossible to imagine a Nick Lowe album that felt like work, or that didn’t seem, somehow, easygoing, warm, and inviting, no matter how sad the subject matter. And this one might be the most lived-in and natural-feeling record of his career.
It’s awash in regret and it flirts with a certain sense of nostalgia, but its pain lives here and now, in the present day; when else has Lowe so pointedly turned his lost-love lamentations on himself, been so wry or so sad in his between-the-lines hints that these love songs were wrecked by some shortcomings on the part of the narrator himself.
The album’s heart and soul come through in three absolute knockout ballads that are as devastating and as beautiful as anything Lowe has ever penned. Opener “Stoplight Roses” is a spare, lonely ode to a romantic gesture that’s too little, too late—a hymn to lose causes and broken homes that’s delivered as such a wistful croon, the only other living singer who could pull it off is Richard Hawley. “House for Sale,” meanwhile, is a song that comes at the parting of ways. Lowe’s precision of language is masterful, his delivery even more so; he tells us he feels like a man who’s “getting out of jail,” but the sadness in the melody tells us the move is anything but liberating. And “I Read a Lot” might be the most heartbreaking of the bunch, a song where the narrator’s denial only makes the obvious sadness that much more painful. The soft moans of a saxophone underscore the pain.
Serving as a nice counterpoint to these numbers is “Checkout Time,” one of the most uptempo things here; it rides a cantankerous shuffle, and the lyric finds the singer wondering—not without remorse, and not without anger—whether his personal failures might keep him from entering into Glory when Judgment Day arrives. (Lowe resents being judged for “some long-forgotten crime,” but I have a feeling the jilted women in “Stoplight Roses,” for instance, might have something to say about that.) I suppose you could also read something into the close proximity of “Restless Feeling,” a cheerful celebration of wanderlust; personally, I’m too caught up in the cheeky throwback-disco vibe. And then there’s the closer, “’Til The Real Thing Comes Along,” which hints at a new start, promising love and fidelity despite those shortcomings, that tendency to wander.
As ever, Lowe seasons his album with cover songs, and he lives up to his reputation for spot-on taste and a keen ear for what works best within the confines of the originals. The longest thing on the record, and one of the best, is a showstopping performance of Elvis Costello’s bad-love country ballad “Poisoned Rose,” delivered in a soulful vocal that may well be Nick’s finest on record. A charmingly low-key and wistful reading of Tom T. Hall’s “Shame on the Rain” might be even finer.
The whole album, though, is elegant and intimate, a master class in songcraft and understated delivery that pays off incredible dividends of emotion; indeed, Lowe stands as the best example there is of how craft and feeling don’t have to be mutually exclusive. The Old Magic is another charmer from a man who’s on a remarkable streak, and if saying so is starting to become a little repetitive, the album itself is no less vital because of it. In fact, I’d call it one of Lowe’s very best.