As career resurgences go, Nick Lowe’s has been as understated and quiet as the man himself. In spite of being Johnny Cash’s son-in-law. a major part of the Stiff Records family and producing the early Elvis Costello albums, Lowe has never exactly been fashionable, even his best songs being somewhat guilty pleasures (especially Cruel To Be Kind). Later in life, he has embraced his uncool image gleefully, white of hair and debonair of dress. His previous album was self-deprecatingly titled At My Age. Since 1994’s superb The Impossible Bird, Lowe has released a sequence of elegant, meticulously composed albums drawing from that wonderful intersection between country, rock and roll and soul. The Old Magic is the latest of these and, whilst it contains few surprises, it reaffirms Lowe’s undiminished songwriting prowess and gentle, relaxed authority. So reliable have these albums been for Lowe’s admirers that it’s hard to believe it is now four years since the last one.
As with previous Lowe albums, the mood and feel of The Old Magic is dependably consistent. It sounds well researched – Lowe’s regular musicians Geraint Watkins, Steve Donnelly and Robert Treherne create a modest but nuanced sound. Lowe’s voice remains an unlikely asset. He often sounds so laid back as to not even be really trying to sing – his phrasing is always articulate and deftly conversational. He inhabits his refined songs with elegance and poise. There is no need to impose himself on proceedings – he is simply, effortlessly right there. Everything about Lowe’s music is unhurried and patient.
Perhaps Lowe does broaden his palette a little here. The uptempo reggae feel of You Don’t Know Me At All (a Jeff West song and one of three covers here) suggests that Lowe might have been drawing some inspiration from the likes of James Hunter, not least because of its sumptuous horn arrangement. The potent, sensitively executed shuffle of Checkout Time takes things back even closer to the source. Lowe is not interested in breaking new ground, however. But like Gillian Welch, his songs sound like they could have been written at any time since the mid-1950s.
As always, there are some remarkable songs in this touching, unassuming set. I Read A Lot is a delectable, soulful ballad capturing a lingering loneliness whilst Stoplight Roses is simply stunning, a rich performance worthy of anything on The Impossible Bird or The Convincer. The cover of Elvis Costello’s Poisoned Rose (from 1986’s King of America), on which Lowe briefly threatens to become sharp and aggressive, re-establishes the two singer-songwriters’ shared history.
No doubt some will debate Lowe’s claim to authenticity, having initially built his career on a combination of pub rock and the new wave. For the most part, this is a very nostalgic and very American sound. It occasionally veers into the realm of polite, pseudo swing. Lowe, seemingly unconcerned, imbues his songs with a wry irony and humour, however, and there can be little doubting his thorough understanding of the songwriter’s craft. THis subtle blend of influences is his own. Perhaps it’s merely their similarity in style and theme, but this series of albums has strongly suggested that Lowe is able to make the music he wishes to make, without any pressure of expectation or commercial improvement. Sometimes the old ones are the best.