Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Sensitive Man / Nick Lowe

If you've been living in a cave for the past month or so . . . you may not have heard that Nick Lowe has a new album out.  The rest of us, we've been witnessing a barrage of press coverage, adulatory reviews, radio appearances, and other coronation-type events heralding the September release of The Old Magic.  Suddenly, it's okay to like Nick Lowe all over again.

I will refrain from asking where all those newly-minted Nick Lowe fans were six years ago, when he hadn't released an album in 4 years and I couldn't find his older CDs anywhere.  Now the old stuff's being re-released (Jesus of Cool and Labour of Lust have gotten the royal re-issue treatment so far, and more are bound to come), along with a 2-disc best-of compilation (Quiet Please) and the boxed set The Brentford Trilogy, that conveniently bundles the three late-90s-early-00s albums wherein he reinvented himself as an older-but-wiser country crooner. Buy, buy, buy!!

Well, I'm a little conflicted -- I'm not sure I'm ready to share Nick with the masses -- though once he's no longer the Flavor of the Month, things will no doubt cool down.  While we're waiting, we can quietly enjoy this album for what it is:  Not the capstone of a storied career, but simply another immensely pleasurable outing by an old dog who still has plenty of tricks up his sleeve.

Several of these songs -- including "I Read A Lot" -- I first heard months ago in concert, when Nick was trying them out on the road.  It's hard for me to recapture how riveted I was, hearing them for the first time.  So until I've properly digested the album as a whole, let me just share with you one new-to-me delight.

From those very first brightly chattering piano chords (the ever sublime Geraint Watkins!), this song ticks along, upbeat and sly.   As Nick happily tells any interviewer who asks, his songs aren't autobiographical, but he certainly does seem fond of adopting the character of a Clueless Loser. In this case, the woebegone fella is baffled to notice a new distance in his lover.  (Shades of last album's "People Change" -- "and you don't know what you've done / Or even how to make it right").  He's picking up various signs, all right -- how she pulls away from his embrace, the looks she shoots across the room -- but he still has no idea what's bugging her. "I know that something is amiss, / But what it is, you won't say," he laments. Just come out and tell me, babe -- don't make me guess! 

All he knows is that he's feeling rebuffed:  "But how can I face it, standing out here in the cold? / I'm a sensitive man." ("Don't freeze me, baby," he begs in the second verse; "you can hear that midnight song," he adds woefully.)  Of course he's wounded and stung, because he's such a sensitive man. ("Though first impressions might steer you wrong," he admits -- he's so misunderstood!) I love the chorus here:  "I'm a sensitive man," he insists, while his mates chime in with doleful "ohhs." And in the coda:  "Sen-sitive man!  Out in the cold! / Sensitive man / Tryin' to do good." Poor baby!

This is a real Mars-and-Venus moment, isn't it?  When we women gush about how sensitive a man is, it's because (we hope) he can read our moods, anticipate our desires, and -- oh, yes -- put himself in our shoes and avoid pissing us off in the first place.  Nick's narrator, though, is sensitive in an entirely different meaning:  easily hurt and prone to brooding.  Put the two together and -- OUCH!!!  

Speaking strictly from a female point of view, I can guess that this guy did something colossally stupid. (Like maybe he FORGOT HER BIRTHDAY?!!!)  And the last thing she wants is to have to spell it out for him.  But he's so obtuse, even when she drops hints all over the place, they shoot right over his head.  MEN!!!

On the other hand -- okay, okay -- maybe this song is about how women over-complicate every emotional situation, and how hard it is for men to navigate those treacherous waters.  Who knows?  It's done with such a light touch, either or both readings are possible.  Nick's pulled off this sort of tease before -- like in "All Men Are Liars," where he simultaneously lambasts the male sex and mocks women who rag on men.

As usual, his delivery is spot-on: Just a few pauses and ironic vocal flourishes to let us in on the joke. There's just a whisper of cheesiness in that cocktail lounge piano, the back-up crooners, the bleating Bacharach-style horns in the middle eight.  Nick can break your heart with regret if he wants to: elsewhere on The Old Magic, for example, with the tender "Stoplight Roses" or the rueful "House For Sale."  But that's not what he's after here. This track is way too bouncy for regret, as our hapless narrator (not Nick, remember!) pouts and scratches his head.

Talk about word play -- forget the puns and double entendres that used to riddle Nick Lowe's lyrics, now he can write an entire song about the conflicting messages contained in one simple phrase.  That, my friends, is the mark of a master wordsmith.


Uncle E said...

Ok, I'm intrigued. I've been a little busy with the new Wilco, but rest assured I'll eventually buy this one. Can't wait for the full album review.

Anonymous said...

Nick, Leon Russell and Paul Brady were on tv together here in England last week, the three of them sang their hits solo acoustic (sometimes accompanying each other with sparse strumming)

It was awesome....never thought I'd hear Nick Lowe singing harmonies on Delta Woman or Paul Brady on Cruel TO Be Kind.

Holly A Hughes said...

Amazing how they've booked him all over the place, eh?

wwolfe said...

I would've bought this just for "I Read a Lot," which I've been impatiently waiting to own since I saw Nick perform it on "Austin City Limits." But the rest of the album is pretty terrific, too. I didn't notice any duds in the bunch, which is one of the basic tests for any album. Great analysis of this song, Holly.

Holly A Hughes said...

Thanks! It's true, it's a wonderfully consistent album, with plenty of nuance and wit. The production is incredibly clean, intimate, and tasteful (and I mean that in a good way -- no false notes, and great textures throughout). Also, Nick's voice has really turned into a fabulous instrument, and he now writes songs that beautifully serve that voice, with all its tender creaks and husky notes. It's a lived-in sound that is very persuasive indeed.

Mark said...

Ah, what a great song! I had to listen to it 3 times in the car last week. Nick can say so much in so few words. It's great to see all the good press Nick is getting for "The Old Magic," it's all well-deserved, that's for sure!