There’s nothing heady about Nick Lowe. He used to be the master of the 3-minute pop song, and having written a stack of tunes worthy of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and George Jones he’s now the master of the 3-minute heartbroken ballad. As with the best songwriters, and interpreters of song, Lowe is never maudlin, never whines, and always preserves his dignity with a touch of humor and restraint. That said, there are a few up tunes on The Old Magic, but the album reminds us that for almost 20 years, the best Lowe has had to offer, has come out of an aching heart.
The Old Magic works as well as any other record Lowe has put out since 1994’s The Impossible Bird, meaning that although Lowe has written some great songs, his albums never quite hold together for me. But, when he’s good, he’s good. And on The Old Magic, 7 of the 11 songs are good; and at least 3 of those 7 are better than good. And since you can buy single songs nowadays, a $7 investment isn’t such a bad thing for a septet of smoky meditations on loss, regret, and death.
The album opens up with my first pick of those 7, “Stoplight Roses,” a moody tune that could have been written in the back seat of a cab on a rainy afternoon. The character he’s singing about has reached the point where he can no longer fool himself. The line, “You better steel yourself and prepare for some blues to descend,” could also serve as a warning to the listener.
Transforming the checkout line at the supermarket into an extended metaphor on death, “Checkout Time” starts off with what could easily be the first line of a novel, “I’m 61 years old now, Lord, I never thought I’d see 30…” Although he doesn’t mention God by name, Lowe speculates on his chances of “crossing over Jordan into glory” and wonders if he “must be condemned forever, damned for some long forgotten crime? Or singing Rock of Ages with the angels, soon after checkout time…”
I’ve never met a songwriter who wasn’t a thief and Nick Lowe is no different. Even he says so. There are a pair of songs on The Old Magic that reek of an older man’s magic; the magician in this case being Burt Bacharach. “Restless Feeling” sounds like the theme song from a movie that no one remembers (including the few people who ever saw it). It’s 1966 again, and the background vocals are corny, the arpeggios tinkle like a Liberace come-on, and the lounge organ winks its way through to the credits. It’s actually a pretty lousy song. But if it’s so lousy, why can’t I stop singing it?
The second Bacharachian number is called “Til the Real Thing Comes Along.” Although its root appears to be based in everything Burt, it still strikes me as one of those songs that came into this world whole, that nobody wrote it, that it has always been part of the standard repertoire. The theme is pretty hokey: Woman holds out for true love, Lowe beseeches her to “let me love you ‘til the real thing comes along.” And by the end of the song, you hope she does. It’s a sweet song that is altogether pre-Beatles with something of the Brill Building about it.
While “House For Sale” and Tom T. Hall’s “Shame on the Rain” are two more tales for the broken hearted, I’m saving the best for last in that little masterpiece “I Read A Lot”. An uncanny meditation on one man’s way of coping with lost love, Lowe explains he reads a lot, “not just magazines, but other more serious things…” and you feel as though he’s ingested these books and has drawn some comfort by the light they provide – but only some comfort – at least enough to get through the day. Even with the strings and the somnolent horn line, he never descends into mawkishness. Rather, he comes off as a thoughtful guy who is just trying to sort things out by writing and singing songs about them.
The 7 songs mentioned hardly amount to 25 minutes of music, but you can get a lot done in 25 minutes if you just listen to the music, lyrics, and nothing else. This isn’t ground-shaking stuff, but – as with the best things in life – it doesn’t necessarily have to be. But maybe this is where The Old Magic is to be found, not in the chaos of the world, but in the quiet corners of our overwrought minds.