Friday, March 23, 2007

“The Beast In Me”, “I Live On A Battlefield” / Nick Lowe


When a musician gets to a certain age, he has to decide; do I get a facelift and hair plugs and maintain the same act, or do I peel off the spandex and reinvent myself as a middle-aged rocker? Mick Jagger and Steven Tyler chose Option One. Nick Lowe has chosen Option Two, and I’m glad he did.

Nick started to go gray in his twenties and never did a thing about it; the hair’s snow-white now. He’s brought the tempo down a few notches, he’s singing in a slightly lower key, and he’s settled into a mellow rootsy country/R&B sound (not all that different from Brinsley Schwarz, when you think about it). Aging gracefully doesn’t even begin to cover it. Nick Lowe seems to be standing in the middle of life’s road, giving us the straight dope about regret and disappointment and accepting reality. This kind of wisdom is worth more to me than admiring how tight Mick Jagger’s 64-year-old ass still is.

Nick wrote “The Beast In Me” for his then stepfather-in-law, Johnny Cash, and it’s a perfect gritty, world-weary song for the Man In Black. I love Cash’s passionate rendition – but when Nick sings it, I just shiver. MY NICK LOWE THEORY #5: Nick’s skill as a poet is completely underrated. Just look at the first verse of “The Beast In Me”: “The beast in me / Is caged by frail and fragile bars / Restless by day / And by night he rants and rages at the stars.” Alliteration, internal rhyme (that “caged/rages” link), the symmetry of day/night – classic poetic techniques (three verses and a bridge and he never drops the ball once).

And Nick mirrors it with his melody: “The beast in me” rises hopefully, only to sidle down the scale as the beast is caged; “restless by day” hammers restlessly on a one note, while “rants and rages” dances, agitated, around higher notes, only to descend again for the final line – “God help / The beast in me.” It’s sung softly, with just an acoustic guitar, letting silence fill every significant pause. That tone of humble surrender is just perfect. Sure, he’s Dr. Jekyll right now, but he knows where Mr. Hyde is lurking.

On this same album (1994’s brilliant Impossible Bird), “I Live On A Battlefield” perfectly complements “The Beast In Me.” The tempo picks up, with drums and a chugging electric guitar, because this soul survivor needs adrenaline to deal with life’s onslaught. “I live on a battlefield,” he says ruefully, “surrounded by the ruins of the love withheld,” and Nick keeps up the battle metaphor, verse after verse. For all the rollicking country-western sound, I picture a smoke-hung line of trenches straight out of World War I, and mud-spattered Nick staggering through barbed wire -- “I stumble through the rubble / I’m dazed, seeing double.” (Note the vowel echoes, the alliteration.) With a wail, he declares, “My new home / Is a shellhole filled / With tears and muddy water / And bits of broken heart.”

He even translates the metaphor for us: “Though one way not one single drop of blood has spilled / It’s no less horrifying / Sweet memories of a bygone situation / Now shattered, lord, and battered / Lie scattered all around,” lobbing extra rhymes at us like hand grenades (similarly, later, he gives us “my new home is one of desolation / And scenes of a devastation / There is no consolation”). That perky tempo, those call-and-response back-up vocals, keep it just humorous enough. He’s got no time for self-pity; THIS IS WAR. I grin, and then I wince, because, yeah, it sure looks familiar. Sigh.

This is what life looks like when you’ve lived it, and I for one dive into these songs gratefully. Wine and cigars improve with age – why not rock musicians? Nick’s even got the confidence to title his next album (his first in six years, due out June 26th) At My Age. I may be older myself, but I'm not ready to hang it up. I still get giddy at the promise of a new Nick Lowe album.,,203157,00.html


Anonymous said...

Yeah, Nick has aged quite well. "Battlefield" really gets me. It should have been a hit! I was just listening to that tune last night. I love your reference of Nick dropping line after line (like hand grenades!). Also, the eery minor key and backing music just works perfectly. All the while, somehow maintaining a soulful almost Motown feel including the background vocals.

Check out

for some more info regarding Nick's new album. Can't wait!


Julie said...

"The Beast In Me" is an absolute masterpiece. Like you, I prefer Nick's version to Johnny's. He brings the complex emotions in the lyrics delicately to the surface. A truly inspired performance.

I also enjoy "I Live On A Battlefield." Good description, Holly.

When I saw Nick live, I was also impressed that he had chosen to write and live as a mature, dignifed middle aged man. There aren't enough of them recording albums.

Anonymous said...

The man is doing it right. Thanks for turning me on to the middle age Nick Holly. I will definitely pick up his new cd and hopefully see him tour.