Nick Lowe has made a Christmas album, which on the face of it seems like a really bad idea. As any fule kno, the only Christmas album worth the name is Bing Crosby’s White Christmas, especially anything with the Andrews Sisters. I have a soft spot for the Concord Jazz Christmas album, which is worth the price of admission for a rather bizarre song called “An Apple, An Orange and a Little Stick Doll” by Jeannie and Jimmy Cheatham. At this time of year, it’s hard to forget that Dylan released a Christmas album, containing the best Jewish Christmas song ever, “Must be Santa.” Have a listen:
Names of the reindeer are interesting…
Anyway – Nick Lowe. His album The Old Magic has been on heavy rotation chez Topsyturvydom for some time, and I will come to it later. Meanwhile, Nick treats the Christmas themes with the same wry humour he brings to his non-seasonal product. Here’s his take on Christmas airport chaos:
The problem with Christmas albums is that you can really only play them at Christmas, so for long-term enjoyment, it’s back to the main catalogue. And in Nick Lowe’s extensive and distinguished catalogue, there’s nothing better than this 2011 release. The Old Magic is in the style to which his fans have become accustomed in recent years – poignant and observant lyrics, catchy melodies, a slightly retro-rockabilly feel. There isn’t a dud on this album, which contains a set of eight beautifully crafted Lowe originals, and three covers, including one by his old mate Elvis Costello. The band comprises old pals who have been playing with him for years, and the familiarity shows – they are relaxed, but absolutely tight, playing in a light, spare groove that suits these songs perfectly.
The opening track, “Stoplight Roses”, chronicles the desperate attempt of a deceitful man in a failing relationship to worm his way back into the woman’s good books by offering a “stoplight rose” – one from the guys who sell things at traffic lights. It’s doomed of course, and that song sets the tone for the album – it’s all about failure, regret, yearning, getting old. In “Checkout Time” he reflects that he’s “61 years old now, and Lord I never thought I’d see 30” and in “House For Sale” the run down dwelling is an obvious metaphor for the failure of the protagonist’s life. “I Read a Lot” is a lovely meditation on the solitary life. “Sensitive Man” is dangerously close to John Shuttleworth territory, but he steers just clear of bathos, helped by the humour of the video:
The cover of Costello’s “Poisoned Rose” is better than the original, and the cover of Tom T. Hall’s “Shame on the Rain” sounds authentically Americana-esque. The best, in my view, is left to last. The final track is another tale of doomed love, “‘Til the Real Thing Comes Along.” It opens with a dreamy riff that would be perfect for the end-credits of a Bond film, and then the bittersweet lyric kicks in. “I know you’re waiting for your dreamboat to come in / And that you don’t see me as being him”, sings Lowe’s hopeful would-be lover. She might love him until the real thing comes along, and who knows, the real thing might turn out to be him. Except we know, and he does, that he won’t be. I love the way the song uses the old standard of the same title as a reference point. In Sammy Cahn’s song, the whole burden of the lyric is that the singer knows this is the real thing, and so, we imagine, does the love object. Here, it’s the wistful aspiration of a man with no chance. I’ve been listening to Nick Lowe for over forty years now, since he was part of Brinsley Schwarz, and I don’t think he has ever sounded better.
The Old Magic by Dr Rob Spence is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.