Tuesday, March 24, 2009

"You Inspire Me" / Nick Lowe

Somewhere here in London -- or rather out in the suburbs, west of where I am sitting in my cramped little hotel room tonight -- Nick Lowe is celebrating his 60th birthday. Sixty is now officially Not Old At All, not if the delightful Mr. Lowe is that age. Don't let his shock of silver hair fool you; this man is in the prime of his life, and at the top of his musical game.

And here's the Nick Lowe song that's been streaming in my brain since I woke up this morning. It's from his 1998 album Dig My Mood, one of my favorites (but what am I saying? ALL Nick Lowe albums are my favorites), the second in his recent quartet of mellow, mature albums. "Country-soul" is the label most often tacked onto Nick's latter-day output, but this song is more jazz than anything else, a laidback two-step with cocktail lounge piano fills and brushed drums. Smooth, sophisticated, effortlessly relaxed, "You Inspire Me" is like the driest of dry martinis, shaken not stirred.

I was thrilled to read in a recent MOJO interview that Nick grooved on his parents' Nat King Cole records when he was a kid; the very first time I heard this track I thought of Nat King Cole. I can just imagine Cole launching into those opening words: "You -- in-- spire me," delivered slowly and grandly, almost like a sweet jazz trumpet. (Come to think of it, Miles Davis could have done a pretty amazing cover of this tune too.)

The song's premise is breathtakingly simple: This woman's very existence somehow saves him, over and over. "You inspire me," he declares over and over, letting his voice creak just so as he describes "When my eyes begin to glaze," or "When I'm on the ground," or "When my well is almost dry," lagging despairingly behind the beat. Her effect is almost magical, as far as he can tell -- "You seem to know / How to pull the blessings down / And spread them all around," his voice soaring as the melody crests on "pull the blessings down." God, I wish someone would write a song like this about me.

Crazily enough, my favorite part of this song is the snazzy little coda, a couplet tacked on to the end of the song: "I don't have to wish upon a star / That's how inspiring you are." Sure, it echoes half a dozen songs from the 50s (Perry Como, anyone?) but there's no more brilliant thief than Nick Lowe. I love how that first line works its way up the scale, the second line curls back down for "that's how inspiring," hangs fire for a beat, then jumps up a dissonant interval on "you are." Instead of neat chord resolution, it bursts out into a new orbit, taking us by surprise -- just the same way her love has surprised him. It's unexpected, and totally dazzling.

Happy birthday, Nick. May you go on writing songs like this for years and years and years.

You Inspire Me sample


The Modesto Kid said...

Wow, how cool is that -- Nick Lowe and Lawrence Ferlinghetti were born on the same day of the year! (a number of years apart to be sure.)

Mark said...

This is a great song, I was listening to it in the car today. I totally hear the Nat King Cole influence on this song, I'm glad I'm not the only who hears it! Nick's voice even reminds me of Nat on this song, there's something about the smoky sheen Nick's voice has on it.

I'm so jealous that you're in London! I haven't been there in a long time, but it's a fantastic city! Say hi to Ray, Robyn, and Nick for me!

wwolfe said...

Wonderful post for a songwriter who can properly be described by a word coined by one of his first-rate predecessors: "swellegant." Enjoy England - it does indeed swing like a pendulum do.