"Dream big, work hard, stay humble." Nils Lofgren.
Lofgren is coming through a difficult double hip replacement just three years ago, and the deaths of longtime E Street Band members, Clarence Clemons, and Danny Federici. He's also had enough time off of the road to take a long look at the tough shape our country is in. He may be reflective, and at times edgy, but as I listen to this disc, I hear tremendous resilience and hope in his voice and in his melodies.
Conceived and recorded in his home studio, this record sounds great and I was surprised to hear that Lofgren recorded it mostly live, without a lot of overdubs or layering. Years of live performance have honed the singer/guitarist's skills. The guitar work on Old School is nothing short of brilliant - he somehow manages to fill every nook and cranny with lyrical, and tasty forays that never sound forced, or self indulgent. It's no small wonder that Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen have kept Lofgren employed for over forty years.
60 Is The New 18 sees Lofgren waxing on the inelegance of growing old without grace. I suspect that Nils is telling this tale as a wry observer more than anything autobiographical here. Sonically, this sounds like a lo-fi dub take on the 80s school of intelligent and melodic guitar pop as practiced by The Police, or The Fixx. This should have a whole generation of indie rockers realizing that homegrown, handmade records needn't sound that way. Lofgren and his band sound like they spent ages working up these arrangements, but they are mostly live basic tracks, some guitar overdubs, and a few vocal fixes. The instrumental breakdown sounds like the love child of Andy Summers, and Billy Gibbons - it will have you scratching your head, and wondering where such brilliance can be bought.
Paying tribute to the voice of Ray Charles, I Miss You, Ray is a song that you know is a classic the minute you hear the first notes (think James Taylor's Fire and Rain). Nils Lofgren's guitar playing is as tremendously identifiable as ever - his touch and tone are sublime, whether he is playing electric, or as on this tune, acoustic. The rolling, laconic notes remind me of many Paul McCartney classics, as the moment you hear them, their intent and meaning are abundantly clear. As a vocalist, Lofgren is in fantastic form - his smoky resonance is endearing, as if a friend was singing to you in your living room.
Amy Joan Blues kicks the energy up a notch - it's a cajun-esque romp that features one of the greatest voices to ever grace rock and roll, Paul Rodgers. Throwing lines casually back and forth, Lofgren and Rodgers sound like they've been singing together all their lives - a couple of old pros just doing what they do. Lofgren plays some amazing slide guitar from beginning to end and never seems to repeat the same lick twice.This is a somewhat standard piece of roots rock that is tremendously elevated by some superb performances.
Nils has been featuring Irish Angel in his solo shows for years, and has now recorded what will be the definitive version of the Bruce McCabe written ballad. Maybe one of the best ballads you've never heard, it's a tearjerker that has Lofgren lamenting that he'll have two drinks, one to forget, and one to remember his Irish angel. Beautifully played and sang, this one will stay on your mind long after listening.
If I had to pick one word to describe this album, I'd say that that word would have to be soulful. When Lofgren sings, "you were mine, when you were mine," it evokes memories of country ballads, haunting loss, and graceful resignation. Words sung by a less skilled vocalist could sound trite, but when Nils sings them you don't doubt that they are straight from the heart. This is another song that has a subtly beautiful arrangement with some nice synth pads, and Lofgren's beautiful acoustic guitar fills.
It takes Lofgren nine songs to finally uncork one that will have you saying, oh yeah, he has played with Springsteen for a quarter of a century. Straight Jersey shore rock with an upfront organ and a loping guitar line, Just Because You Love Me is a heartfelt paean from a man to his wife. This is a cut that lets you far enough into the artist's world to know that the hope he conveys in his voice is well placed.
Another heart on his sleeve ballad follows, with Let Her Get Away. It tells the tale of a man who just can't find the way to let go of a lost love. Lofgren's gentle, wispy acoustic guitar is the perfect accompaniment for the song, as Nils describes what dooms him to lose all love subsequent to losing the one he let get away. A beautiful prayer of contemplative resignation.
Nils Lofgren's legend is based on guitar histrionics, vaulting into somersaults off of drum risers, being a dependable sideman, and occasional solo artist. Old School may be his most well realized solo foray, and is a marvelous album for our times, as well as his - the pains and woes he sings of are those of all of us in these turbulent times, but it is his sense of hope and perseverance that has kept me listening to this record repeatedly, and digging it more with each subsequent listening.
Old School is one of the finest records I have heard this year, and it's been a pretty good year. A great album for our times - it is a bit sad and reflective, but willing to do the work to make things right.
You should buy this record today.