Thursday, September 24, 2009

"I'm A Mess" / Nick Lowe

Hrmpphh! Not only did Levon Helm not sing "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" at last night's taping of Elvis Costello's show Spectacle -- Levon himself didn't sing at all. Elvis assured us that it's not a question of Levon's throat cancer recurring, simply vocal strain from too much performing lately. Still, he was under doctor's orders to do nothing more than drum (at least we got the pleasure of watching him do that), while no less a ringer than Ray LaMontagne filled in with Levon's vocals on the show's finale, a rendition of (I should have guessed) "The Weight."

But was I disappointed? Oh, no, my brothers and sisters, for by the time Levon came on stage I was already in a state of utter bliss. Yes, I enjoyed watching the ever-droll Richard Thompson and superlatively elegant Allen Toussaint do their parts of the show. But there was really only one reason why I'd venture up to 125th Street on a weeknight, and that was -- sigh -- Nick Lowe.

And so I officially enter the time of year I call Nick Lowe Season. For the past couple of years, Nick has been kind enough to swing through town round about this time of year (generally on his way to sing at San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival -- you lucky West Coast dogs), and I have not missed seeing him. Are you kidding? Me miss Nick Lowe? And while I think I do a pretty good job the rest of the year of pretending to be interested in other artists, when Nick Lowe Season is upon us, I am simply a besotted basket case. So apologies in advance, but a fangirl's gotta do what a fangirl's gotta do.

Last night, Nick -- who was looking dapper as ever in black trousers, a black jumper, snappy black Converse kicks, and his new hipster black-framed eyeglasses -- began by ripping my heart out of my chest with his rendition of "Lover Don't Go"; please read my earlier post, which already says all I need to say about why that is a brilliant song. After his "interview" with Elvis -- Elvis playing the eager boy reporter, Nick deadpanning self-deprecatory remarks to the crowd -- he went on to slay us even further with "The Beast In Me." (Which he wryly introduced with the remark, "I don't know why I seem to be doing all the dreary songs tonight. I actually do have some upbeat numbers, really I do.")

So to prove Nick's point, I figured it was a good time to write about one of Nick's upbeat songs -- THE song, in fact, that first made a Nick Lowe fan out of me. Appropriately enough, I have Elvis to thank; he included this track on a Starbucks compilation disk of "what I'm listening to now," the sort of easy-cheesy promotion that Elvis seemingly can't pass up. I knew who Nick Lowe was, without really having a clue as to what he'd been doing lately, musically speaking. I began listening out of mild curiosity; three minutes and eleven seconds later, I was practically hanging from the chandelier.

Upbeat? Well, uptempo, at least, and wickedly funny, in its own droll dry sly way. With no intro at all, Nick announces, "I'm a mess!" a numb and disoriented squawk of complaint. Then, after a few beats of silence, he explains: "I should be filling rooms / with the sweet smell of success" -- and no doubt there's a touch of autobiography there, Nick's own confession that his once-bright career somehow got off track. Ruefully he admits, "I'm a mess / Look at what I've been reduced to," accompanied by Geraint Watkins' wheezing organ and Bobby Irwin's slow ticking drums. As if shaking his head in regret, he addresses his ex: "I don't blame you for saying no / when you should have said yes," but if he may be permitted one last twist of the knife, lapsing miserably down the scale: "But darlin' darlin' darlin' /Look at me now, I'm a mess."

That lovable loser pose has served Nick well; it's a venerable country music conceit, though considering how often it appears on this album -- 2004's The Convincer -- it suspect it had some basis in Nick's own life. This "character" could easily be drawn from his life, as he complains, "the smart set / I used to run around with are invisible now / They cut me loose / When one said that what I've got might just rub off on them somehow." (Forget about having the same number of syllables in each verse -- our singer is too glum to worry about scanning right now.) Though by this time Nick was well past the bottom he hit in the early 1980s, when drink and divorce had left him on the rocks, the residue of that misery still seeps into this song.

And yet it IS an upbeat song, because Nick's poking such delicious fun, objectifying himself into a character, and winking at us to join in with him. Even he knows this is only a phase -- as he says in the second verse, "Some of these days I'm gonna get back on my feet / And quit this blue address" (lovely compressed image there).
He's already pulled hmself together enough to write this song, hasn't he? And his country crooning drawl, the slight cheesinsess of the organ, are so damn companionable, you can't imagine why this slob would be ostracized. Drowning lazily in self-pity (men are such babies), he's a parody of lovesick loss.

What brilliant songwriting this is, skillfully nudging at the boundaries of classic pop structure. The melody pretends to be rambling and disjointed; each verse collapses into that woeful reiterated"Darlin' darlin' darlin'," as if he's too lost to articulate anything more. (How rare, to make the repetition of a chorus something more than just formal necessity.) And with less-is-more economy, Nick leaves us curious about so many details. Is he just wallowing in his own sorrow? Is this simply a shrewdly calculated bid to win her sympathy? Does he even want the girl back?

The emotional complexity behind the lyrics -- rendered in his slightly battered, real-guy vocals -- devastated me at first listen. Frankly, it made me want to swim the ocean to comfort this hapless broken-hearted chump. (Did I even know what Nick Lowe looked like? Did it matter?) But here's the mark of Nick's genius: This song just keeps getting better and better, every time I listen to it. And when you think how many songs the man has written that are just this good -- well, that why I welcome Nick Lowe Season more eagerly every year.

I'm a Mess sample

5 comments:

J-Money said...

One of these days, I won't gush over each of your posts but since I spent all of Friday afternoon listening to The Convincer on endless repeat, today's not that day.

This is an exquisite analysis of that song...and your musings on "Lover Don't Go" were equally wonderful.

I'm covering the Austin City Limits festival next week and Levon Helm's still on the schedule... here's hoping that his overtaxed larynx will be ready for the show.

Holly A Hughes said...

From what Elvis said, I think Levon's problem is short-term. He's probably trying to conserve his energies for ACL.

And somehow I knew you'd be on the same page as me when it comes to The Convincer...

wwolfe said...

It's funny how you can respond to an album in different ways at different times in your life. "At My Age" knocked me out the first time I heard it, and remains one of my favorite albums by anyone from the last few years. "The Convincer" - as well its two predecessors, "The Impossible Bird" and "Dig My Mood" - didn't have the same impact on me. Having read your this entry, I want to dig out all three and re-hear them. Or, perhaps more accurately, really hear them for the first time. Whatever my reaction might be when I do, I cannot wait to see the episode of "Spectacle" that you got to see being recorded. That will be a great hour of television. And, as a proud CCNY alum, I still have fond memories of seeing the Apollo Theater marquee when I came up the stairs from the subway each morning on my way to school. The thrill of that never dimmed for this smalltown Ohio boy.

Mark said...

It is totally Nick Lowe season! For the last 2 years I have seen Nick in concert around this time of year, but sadly this fall he's not coming anywhere close to Minneapolis. I'm definitely ready to see him again. Such a great songwriter...I need to listen to this song again...

Holly A Hughes said...

Dig My Mood is still my favorite of Nick's "comeback" albums. Though I'm such a Nick addicts, I even like Pinker and Prouder Than Previous, so "comeback" is a relative term for me...

Mark, for your sake, let's hope he's coming back in the spring as well this year. Well, okay, it's for my sake as well...