- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Nick Lowe

At My Age

Yep Roc

Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, before “pop” became a dirty word, Nick Lowe was the unchallenged high-concept pop-meister of the British new wave scene. Mr. Lowe produced breakthrough records for Elvis Costello and the Pretenders, among others, all the while bashing out his own albums of irresistibly clever, cynically hard-edged pop, often in collaboration with the rootsy English guitarist, Dave Edmonds.

The hard-partying Mr. Lowe, now 58, didn’t seem like the type who would ever grow up and make “serious” music, but starting in the mid-‘80s, he slowly but surely began to outgrow his clowning, carousing, pub-rocking musical persona. The change happened with such gradual seamlessness that most of the music-buying public didn’t even notice.

By the time he made “The Impossible Bird” in 1994, Mr. Lowe had honed his new musical strategy and found a new kind of voice that suited him to a tee — searching and introspective, but checked by just enough of the old ironic distance to avoid embarrassing himself or burdening the listener with an outpouring of naked emotion.

Trading musical bombast and flamboyant hooks for the more subtle pleasures of a deeply finessed groove, Mr. Lowe has become a master of working songs and arrangements until they sound unforced — utterly effortless, as if they had always existed. Each successive album finds him deepening his exploration of characteristic themes like regret and redemption, withdrawal and misanthropy. At the same time, he and his longtime band continue to incrementally fine-tune their collective command of a handful of kindred genres, including country, R&B;, country-soul and rockabilly.

On his new album, “At My Age,” Mr. Lowe once again slips comfortably into the role of an aging roue, working his way through sin to a reasonable facsimile of salvation. This familiar pathway could easily curdle into schmaltz. For the most part it doesn’t, because, to Mr. Lowe’s great credit, he’s not too proud to occasionally allow rancorous self-pity or a creepy vindictiveness to cast a pitch-black shadow over even his most ostensibly humorous songs. An aging roue, even one with a musical gift and a basically good heart, carries a lot of guilt, and Mr. Lowe’s confessions have the startling ring of truth.

“I Trained Her to Love Me” (“so I could go ahead and break her heart”), the album’s best song, features spine-tingling two-finger organ fills and the kind of unsparing self-examination one does not usually see outside of the therapist’s office, exposing a ruthless underside to run-of-the-mill commitment-phobia.

In a shrewd stroke of sequencing, the stony-hearted serial monogamy of “I Trained Her” is mitigated by the next song, “The Club” (“This club’s not for the happy types caught up in pinks and yellows/It’s for all the lost and lonely broken-hearted fellows”). A misery-loves-company invitation to communion among quietly desperate jilted men, the song is maliciously embedded in a musical setting of swaggering surf guitar and swashbuckling Spanish brass.

“Hope For Us All” crosses “Spanish Harlem” with the Spinners to create an anthem of gentle uplift. The plaintively nostalgic shuffle “Long Limbed Girl” achieves aching poignancy.

Of course, at Nick Lowe’s age a man’s stamina is apt to flag, and the album starts to lose momentum about halfway through. “People Change” is lightweight filler, which even Chrissie Hynde on background vocals can’t rescue. One wonders if Mr. Lowe has drunk too much of his own redemptive Kool-Aid as he crosses the line into preachiness here — even if he is preaching the virtues of stoic adaptability.

“Other Side Of The Coin” is an ill-advised take-back of a song Mr. Lowe wrote for soul legend Solomon Burke’s acclaimed comeback album, “Don’t Give Up on Me.” “Feel Again,” a swingin’ lounge reading of a Faron Young song, is marred by a meandering sax that is the single worst element of the album. Mr. Lowe archly calls his version a “Dean Martin country record.” But a cheesy novelty stunt delivered with a wink is still a cheesy novelty stunt.

Honest without being confessional, “At My Age” adds another pearl to Mr. Lowe’s unlikely late career string of rootsy, sadder-but-wiser album triumphs that peaked with his 1998 masterpiece, “Dig My Mood.” At the same time, it betrays unmistakable signs that he has about played this string out. The guess here is that Mr. Lowe, whose first son was born in 2005, has something new gestating. Surely, an artist as self-aware as Nick Lowe recognizes that at his age, one doesn’t have the time to waste repeating oneself.