Saturday, September 26, 2009

"What's Shakin' On The Hill" / Nick Lowe

So indulge me. Just one more Nick track, this one from his criminally neglected 1989 album Party of One. Much is made of Nick's comeback "trilogy" (they've actually been repackaged as a box set called The Brentford Trilogy), which includes The Impossible Bird (1994), Dig My Mood (1998), and The Convincer (2004). But in my humble opinion, the comeback really began with Party of One, where he first began to move into the more subtle, wry, laidback groove that's been his territory ever since. Party of One was the first Nick Lowe album I could get my hands on after the Great Awakening of spring 2005; it's the one that confirmed my suspicion that this guy's music was all I'd been waiting for.

It's hard for me to believe that "What's Shakin' On the Hill" was written 20 years ago. Nick still sings it in concert (along with the priceless "All Men Are Liars," also from this album), and it doesn't sound one bit dated -- although truth to tell it never sounded like an 80s song to begin with. That simple opening riff -- a series of descending thirds, falling lazily just behind the beat -- eases us into the song like a stroll down a country road. And indeed, it begins with a pastoral scene -- "There's a cool wind blowin' in the sound of happy people" (that internal rhyme of "wind" and "blowin' in" swings us along). Curious, we move toward that sound, already picturing the venue: "At a party given for the gay and debonair." He adds more details, in shorter lines that don't quite complete that signature melodic line: "There's an organ blowing in the breeze / For the dancers hid behind the trees" -- just offstage, so tantalizing. But then comes the cruel reality, as the last two lines work their way down to the resolution of the melody: "And I ain't never gonna see / What's shakin' on the hill."

So why not? I'm dying to know. He's brought us so close, only to snatch it away. In verse two he explains himself, ruefully, his awkward grammar betraying the sting of rejection: "That I someday may be joining in / Is just wishful thinking / Cause admission's only guaranteed / To favored few." And Nick, apparently -- in his classic role as the wistful loser -- isn't on that guest list.

In the bridge, he owns up to the truth: "I'm too blue to be played with / And I get heartaches / So they tell me, 'No dice'." (The casual cruelty of that "no dice" -- what a slap in the face!) If he were younger, he might pin the blame on one girl, one heartbreak, but no, he's old enough by now to admit it's his own melancholy temperament at fault. Like Ray Davies in "Waterloo Sunset," he's forever on the outside, a mere observer of life. With a defensive shrug, he notes, "It isn't allowed / In that carefree crowd / To be seen with tears in your eyes." Well, as soon as Nick tells me that, I realize I don't want to be with that carefree crowd either. Bunch of shallow hedonists. The "gay and debonair" -- HA! No, I want to be outside with Nick, "Kicking cans 'round / While that happy sound / Keeps cracking on." That image of the lonely kid kicking cans around -- how that wrings my heart.

But self-pity's not on the agenda -- no, not tonight. Stuck outside in the shadows, he confesses honestly, "Though I long so strong to be inside / With the blues is where I do reside," letting the melody crest upwards on "where I do reside." And after the instrumental break and one last go of the chorus, he peters out, muttering "what's shakin'" over and over, like he can't quite tear himself away, no matter how resigned he is to his fate.

Who needs visual details? Somehow Nick makes me imagine my own scene -- golden lights gleaming through the trees, shadows pooled around parked cars, an empty roadway gleaming pale in the moonlight. The far-off clink of glasses and ripples of disembodied laughter. Assured in his craft, Nick no longer overworks his metaphors, but we know that it's not just a party he's missing -- that hill could represent social acceptance, career success, critical acclaim, domestic happiness, religious faith, whatever.

What kills me is the light touch of this song -- the liting jazzy tempo, the major key, the skipalong melody. (It's really at its best sung solo and acoustic.) He's not slamming angrily against that barred door, nor curdled with bitterness, nor drowning in woe. He's accepted his place on the sidelines of life, though he still feels twinges of envy and regret. It's goddamn Keatsian, that's what it is, delicately maintaining a fragile equipoise between love and loss, between sorrow and acceptance, between now and then and someday.

Or maybe it's just a pop song, you daft fangirl you. Well, that too.

What's Shakin' on the Hill video
What's Shakin' on the Hill audio


Holly A Hughes said...

I just have to add this -- though for all I know it's overreaching. But the first time I heard this song it struck me that it might be Nick's wistful reflection on his lack of religious faith. A stretch? I think not. Notice the "organ" playing, the "favored few" (e.g., the Chosen People); and of course the City on the Hill is a classic image of religious nirvana. (He comes back to this on Dig My Mood in the song "High on a Hilltop"). Nick wouldn't be the first agnostic to regret being shut out of the comfort of faith.

Crafty said...

Thanks for highlighting this song/album. I often forget about it. I was a huge NL fan in 70's. This helped me re-discover him.

Mark said...

Holly, I have also thought about the religious aspect of this song too. The hill, the "favored few," it could be a guy sulking outside a party, or it could be a guy who knows he's not getting into heaven. I love hearing Nick sing this solo in his concerts, it's spine-tingling. I love the little figure he plays on the guitar after "while that happy sound/keeps crackin' on," so cool!

Holly A Hughes said...

Great detail, Mark -- that little fiddle on the guitar is so superb. I swoon over it every time!

Crafty, I love hearing someone else who digs Party of One. To my mind it's an underrated gem.

Sooper8 said...

I went to see Nick in March at the Opera House in Buxton...he was truly amazing and he did this song.
Just about one of the best concerts I've been to and believe me I've been to a lot over the last 35 years!
Nice site you have here!

Charles said...

This is great blog Holly! I'm 24 and when I mention guys like Nick Lowe, Graham Parker or John Hiatt to my friends their eyes glaze over. For some reason the more conventional pop sound of the 80's and early 90's Lowe albums originally turned me off (he almost sounds like James Taylor here), but thankfully I took a second look. Great song. I like the little Cat Steven intonation at the end.