52 GIRLSTwo Shelleys:
A Nick Lowe Two-Fer
"Shelley My Love" / Nick LoweThis track, from Nick's great 1994 album The Impossible Bird, is a perpetual mystery to me. On a album full of heartbreak gems like "The Beast In Me," "Where's My Everything?," "Lover Don't Go," and "I Live On a Battlefield," how does this one song of perfect love and harmony fit in? Frankly, it's not one of my favorite Nick Lowe songs, and not only because I wish he were singing it with my name instead.
You see, one of the things I most love about Nick Lowe is his clever storytelling lyrics, and those seem to have deserted him here. I tell myself it's all part of the song's scenario -- he's inarticulate, resorting to clichés, because he's so much in love, safe within the cocoon of simple happiness. But there's no room in there for me.
Not only is there no story, we don't even learn much about this Shelley person (honest, I'm not jealous, I swear). All we see is her effect upon him. As soon as she calls his name, he's "all aflame," and "a passion fills my very soul." Now, I know we humans tend to fall back upon poetic clichés when we're in the grip of strong emotion. But I expect more of Nick Lowe.
Okay, there is some creative songwriting structure -- he picks up the second couplet of his first verse and repeats it as the first couplet of the second verse, adding two new lines about how extra-terrestrial and "supernatural" this love is. But that's hardly a villanelle, and again, it's all about his feelings, nothing about the girl who inspires them.
Maybe that's a good thing. Maybe it allows one to imagine that one is oneself the girl Nick is singing to/about. (See, I AM trying here.) That slow two-step tempo is so relaxing, the melody wistful and beautiful as it caresses her name then soars upward. The arrangement is understated and perfect, with just a soft guitar, brushed drums, an exhalation of organ. Nick's singing is exquisitely tender and earnest (though even better is Rod Stewart's surprisingly effective cover version -- who knew?)
I should love it. What's wrong with this picture?
"Shelly's Winter Love" / Nick Lowe, Paul Carrack, and Bill KirchenAh, now this is more like it.
On his 2010 album Word to the Wise, guitar god Bill Kirchen (a.k.a. "Titan of the Telecaster") offers a treasure trove of collaborations. I happen to like Kirchen's singing, but I'll forgive him for tapping ringers when the vocal guest list includes Elvis Costello, Maria Muldaur, Dan Hicks, and these two guys.
There's always a twang in Bill Kirchen's dieselbilly sound, and Nick Lowe needs little encouragement to turn country crooner. Paul Carrack may have played with everyone from Roxy Music to Squeeze to Ringo Starr's All-Starr Band, but after all, he was part of Nick Lowe's Cowboy Outfit in the 1980s. So when these three get together, why not cover a country gem?
And what better than this track from Merle Haggard's 1971 mega-hit LP Hag? It's a fair bet that Bill Kirchen (then in Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen) and Nick (then in Brinsley Schwarz) listened to Hag when it came out. (Could Nick even have been remembering it 20-some years later when he wrote "Shelley My Love"?) They sing this with all the fondness of a long-familiar song.
In this song, powerful love doesn't render the singer speechless; what it does do is fool him into accepting a less-than-ideal situation. "I know I'm only Shelly's winter love / She only seems to need me now and then. / I know I'm only Shelly's winter love / But she's mine alone till springtime comes again." Apparently a little bit of Shelley is worth the frustration, and he's making the most of the time he does have with her. That easy-ticking tempo is anything but mournful, and both Nick and Paul -- who trade lead vocals -- instinctively revert to the Haggard yodel on that brief triumphant boast "she's mine alone."
So is Shelley a fickle slut? Loyal to the core, that's not how he sees it. She leaves in the spring, it's true, but only when outside forces tempt her -- "When those friends of hers start callin' her from town." (In country terms, "town" is an evil force; in verse two it's her "painted world.") She's just a free spirit, country-music-style. But our hero waits patiently for "Shelly's winter season / When her troubled moments bring her back around." It's not just about the calendar, but the seasons of the heart. It's a weird kind of schadenfreude -- he's secretly happy when she's unhappy, because it drives her back to him.
And who wouldn't return to such a faithful, understanding lover? "These arms of mine she knows are always waiting" -- how comforting that sounds. Yet he's no fool -- he's fully aware, in the second verse's last line, that "she'll leave when love has thawed the winter ground."
I'm bursting with questions about this scenario. Is Shelly just using him? Will there be a day when she stops coming back? Will he finally get fed up? Will she finally realize he's the best thing that ever happened to her? We'll never know, of course. But for four minutes or so, I'm living in the push-and-pull of their relationship, and registering every break of the singer's voice, every plangent guitar riff and piano fill.
That's a song that works.