This is terrible, this may be the worst attitude I’ve had about a new release in years. It’s been 2 weeks since I purchased Nick Lowe‘s new album, The Old Magic. I’ve yet to spin it. As anyone who knows me and my Insta-Reviews can tell you, “KingEd don’t sit on new releases for 2 weeks.” OK, I sat on a pile of Robert Pollard-related releases sent to me by Townsman kpdexter for too long, but that was because life was crazy busy, not because I had a bad attitude about listening to Pollards then-latest 19 albums.
I’ve got a real bad attitude about this new Nick Lowe album. Let’s start with the first contributing factor:
Who designed this thing, Nick’s neice? Lindsey Buckingham or his neice—or whatever PhotoShop novice designed the cover for his new album? It’s just blah. I know the designer’s working some Olde Tyme ’50s fonts and colors into this cover design for obvious stylistic ties to Lowe’s recent 15-year run of recordings, but this cover looks incomplete, slapped together, like a K-Tel knockoff to cash in on American Grafitti and Happy Days. I’m not usually a stickler for such details, but if you’re going to have a woman dressed to look like she belongs on an album cover from the 1950s/early ‘1960s, shouldn’t she have hips? And if you’re shooting for a certain period album cover, isn’t there some essential trim missing?
Yeah, yeah, Mature Artist Nick Lowe probably couldn’t give a 3-year-old shit about the album cover, but truth be told, it was the first thing that grated on me before I’d heard a single note.
Next up was the 5 minutes of a recent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, a radio show out of my hometown Philadelphia that I’ve proudly tuned into for as long as it’s been on the air. She’s had Lowe on for excellent interviews in the past, but in recent years Terry has begun to grate on me. She seems more caught up in her own little world than I am able to be. I’m sure we share some blame, but she’s taken to gushing over too many of her old favorites, attributing a few too many “serious” assumptions to questions for her interview subjects, doing too many shows for my interest on the Middle East, and generally coming off as increasingly cloistered. How dare anyone become too attached to their personal interests as they settle into middle age!
The only bit of the interview I heard involved Gross breathlessly complimenting Lowe for the imagery of a song from his new album, “Stoplight Roses,” which he had just played in the studio. It was a nice, little song in that Olde Tyme Vein he’s been digging, spanning pre- and early-rock pop songcraft, that I have truly loved over the course of his Mature Period. Terry posed some fangirl compliment disguised as broader question with her deep personal concerns about the state of his marriage. The question began to annoy me. Lowe’s response raised the annoyance level, as he cranked up the old Woody Allen conceipt—”I’m not an autobiographical writer”—before explaining the little personal story that inspired “Stoplight Roses.”
It’s clear, right, why Gross’ question began to annoy me, especially if you heard her confidential tone, like she was catching up with her dear old friend and the phone conversation just happened to be recorded? I trust I don’t need to break that down any further. As for Lowe’s answer, I know I shouldn’t care whether the songs are autobiographical or not, and I really don’t, provided I dig the song. But as he went on to explain, although the song was not directly autobiographical it did spring from an actual observation followed by a thought about human behavior. At a certain point, what’s not personal? And what’s really the point in an artist claiming that a work of art is “not autobiographical” other than to put the spotlight on the artist’s sense of Creativity? “I created this work out of thin air,” the Artist tells us, “inspired by the Muses!” Admit it, who hasn’t created anything without some form of the following thought creeping into his or her mind: I create, therefore I am at least a little more than a mere human!
Maybe I’m wrong in assuming this and have just admitted yet another pathetic personal detail about myself, but that’s the vibe I get from denails of autobiographical content. It may relate to the long-held beef of my close, personal friend E. Pluribus Gergely, who feels the term “genius” is too liberally applied to all manner of artists. I feel like some artists work a little too hard at, with the help of their media supporters and fans, convincing me of their Master Craftsmanship. It’s like the conventional wisdom that John Hiatt is a “great songwriter!” Why? Because he’s managed to have a career with maybe the least-pleasing voice and hairline in the history of rock? Or those B+ movies that nevertheless are lauded for their “excellent screenplay!” No one has ever handed me the screenplay before I sat down to watch a movie. What theaters do you people attend?
I’ve followed and dug Nick Lowe’s career since I first heard him in high school because he can be so effective at making records. He’s got style, more than enough soul, humor, and a great voice and sense of taste (or lack thereof, in the early days, when such a lack was needed). He’s written some great songs, but I haven’t stuck it out through His Cowboy Outfit and other mediocre-to-terrible albums so I could appreciate his Songwriting or speculate about the state of his personal life. Lowe doesn’t have to advertise the fact that he’s a craftsman. Isn’t that one of the things that’s best about him? And like the craftspeople we appreciate most in our everyday lives, he’s not only delivered quality work but positive vibrations. A stone-faced, reliable handyman who knocks out any job you give him is to be treasured, but one who does his job and chats you and your family up for a few minutes is even better. You enjoy the banter and offer the guy a cup of coffee before he leaves for his next job. I enjoy the banter with Nick and offer him a cup of coffee before I move onto my next album. I surely don’t want to speak in hushed tones about the state of Nick Lowe’s marriage or hear the details of a half-decent song about some sad-sack buying his woman a single, manufactured rose from a streetside vendor!
Musically, I’ve heard The Old Magic too many times before. I hate to say it, but the act is worn thin. If Nick (and not just Terry) is trying to tell me he’s no longer a “handyman” but a “restoration contractor,” or whatever the appropriate fancier term in this analogous range might be, then I’m here to tell him to keep his day job. Cole Porter and that ilk of songwriter is long gone. There comes a time when rewriting the standards is little more, at best, than an exercise in keeping Rod Stewart‘s career alive.