Considering pop music's obsession with youth, it's hardly an avenue for a songwriting senior citizen. So how is it that after 40 years in the business, Nick Lowe is still churning out self-referential pop to gushing critical acclaim?
In June '07, he released At My Age (Yep Roc), an album that finds the aged songsmith stretching out with ease into mellow moods. Yet the British power-pop icon makes no attempts to rehash the late '70s glory he gained with songs such as "Cruel to Be Kind" and "I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass."
As Lowe ages gracefully, he avoids the pitfalls that snag many songwriters who find themselves 30 years past their peak. The subsequent reissue of his 1978 solo debut, Jesus of Cool, bookends the British pop icon's legacy with poignancy and self-effacing humor.
"It all started in the early '80s, when I realized that my career as a pop star was over," Lowe explains over the phone from his home on London. His pleasant English mannerisms and breezy tone bear the unmistakable presence of the same broken-hearted man who toils and croons throughout all of his albums.
Because he worked as both an artist and a producer who shaped the sounds of the earliest recordings by the Damned and Elvis Costello, Lowe was privy to upper management banter. "I yukked it up with the boys on the 20th floor, and they thought musicians were all morons," he recalls. "I was aware that my time would be up, too. I puzzled over the fact that there weren't any older people with any credibility in pop music, so I had to find a way of using the fact that I'm getting older in this business to my advantage. I wanted youngsters to say: I can't wait to get as old as Nick Lowe."
In March, Lowe turned 59, an age when most folks look toward retirement. But on the heels of At My Age, he isn't content to kick up his feet.
The album opens with him singing, "In my life I've done things I'm not proud of," in a convincing tone of redemption. But two songs later, he offers "I Trained Her to Love Me," in which he takes great pleasure in damaging the women with whom he is involved. The song is evocative of his 1979 hit "Cruel to Be Kind," in which he labored over the head games that arise in affairs of the heart. But while the older song romanticized psychological antagonism, "I Trained Her to Love Me" paints Lowe out to be a character who is both sinister and cynical.
"When we did that song everyone in the room was chortling away over it and said, 'You know ... Lucinda Williams could really do a great job singing this song,' but the room went silent when somebody else said it's much heavier when a man says it," Lowe recalls. "That was absolutely right. You tend to naturally think that this is how a woman would put it, anyway; they train us to love them. But when a man says it, it's just so much more chilling ... So I didn't ever show it to Lucinda!"
Unlike songwriters who pen vague lyrics to prevent listeners from relating the material to them in a personal way, Lowe has long worked in quite the opposite fashion. His face is always featured on the covers of his albums, and he inserts what appears to be a strong sense of self into his music, creating an exploration of downbeat emotions through upbeat songs.
He crafts a clear character to follow as each record tells a chapter in his life. But no matter how much his albums come across like his diary entries being set to music, Lowe insists that's simply not the case.
"I know what it feels like to have your heart broken, but when I say it in a song I'm rarely singing about myself," he says. "I am on old-fashioned pop-song writer; it's all made up. So if I do a song like 'Better Man' and then sing 'I Trained Her to Love Me,' I'm just writing pop songs, but I identify with all of it ... I work hard to make it so shocking in its banality that people can't believe what they're hearing."
To hear a podcast interview with Nick Lowe and an MP3 from his latest release, click here.