Nick Lowe, “Christmas at the Airport”
Sometime in the late summer, when sweat still puddled under your thighs while you idled at long stoplights, Starbucks started playing holiday music, topping every iced Frappuccino with the latest limp arrangements of the same handful of standards. The grocery stores dragged it out a couple of weeks later, followed by the pharmacies, the malls and then even the saddest-looking Citgo had Bing Crosby in the background when they handed you the key to their one terrifying bathroom.
Despite all of that, I still can’t do it. Christmas doesn’t start on my stereo until after the Thanksgiving dishes have all been Tetris-ed into the dishwasher, which meant I didn’t peel the plastic from Quality Street, Nick Lowe’s first-ever holiday record, until last Thursday afternoon and, man, it was worth the wait.
They don’t make Christmas albums like this one anymore (and this is not a vague collection of holiday songs; it’s 100% a Christmas album, shaking off its swaddling clothes and spinning in a manger at 33 1/3 rpm) and haven’t since Nat King Cole had a pile of unroasted chestnuts and Gene Autry tried to remember which deer came after Donner and Blitzen. Lowe’s songs sound like they came straight from that same timeless period, back when TVs still had three channels and a doctor could deliver a baby while holding a lit cigarette.
Although Lowe does cover some Golden Standards, they aren’t the ones you’ve heard ten billion times while you waited in line at the bank; his chugging rockabilly version of “Children, Go Where I Send Thee” is a perfect album opener while he brings a new dad tenderness (and Lowe’s probably still at the far end of that category) to Roger Miller’s “Old Toy Trains.” I can’t think of another modern artist who could pull these off with Lowe’s charm, sincerity and total lack of winking irony, which makes them even more endearing.
But—unsurprisingly—the standout tracks are the ones that Lowe wrote himself. “Christmas at the Airport” is from the perspective of a shockingly upbeat traveler (No, this person does not and cannot actually exist) who tries to entertain himself while he’s stuck at a departure gate for the holidays. (“I took a set of X-rays/They came out rather well,” he sings, a legit ell-oh-ell line), while “A Dollar Short of Happy”—cowritten with Ry Cooder—covers an unmistakable brand of gated subdivision sadness (“No more private schools or exercise machines/No more crazy nannies gettin’ high in the SUV”), the kind of emotion connected to the numbers on your Bank of America account.
Although Quality Street essentially serves as a sampler platter of genres, covering rockabilly, Johnny Cash-caliber country, old school crooning and O! Brother Where Art Thou? Americana, the best instrument on the album is Lowe’s voice. With every release, it sounds a little richer and a little more worn in all the right places, like a cardigan sweater that has a pair of shiny patches on the elbows.
My only criticism is that on a couple of tracks there are too many things piled on top of each other, like appetizers stacked on an overworked paper plate. The Ron Sexmith-written “Hooves on the Roof” would be fine enough without the weird Joe Meek-circa-‘Telstar’ outer space noises (Is that supposed to be, like, Santa’s Super Doppler radar?) and what could’ve been a Grade A-update to ‘Silent Night’ gets lost beneath the Dick Dale guitar licks, horn section, way up-in-the-mix percussion and, good god, is that an organ too? But I’m giving co-producers Neil Brockbank and Robert Trehorne a break, both because Christmas is made of shameless excesses and because they were both behind the boards for Lowe’s sublime At My Age.
I read an Amazon review that gave Quality Street a two-star slam because it wasn’t party music (I’m paraphrasing) and that’s true, but not for the reason that person bashed out on their MacBook. Most Christmas songs do get relegated to the background, the musical equivalent of wallpaper, either because we’ve heard them every year since we were pouring milk for Santa or because they’re so cheesy they should be wrapped in a thin layer of red wax. These songs—Lowe’s songs—aren’t those songs. This is the rare Christmas album that deserves both repeated spins and your full attention, whether while you’re having a late night glass of bourbon or while you’re stranded at the airport, wondering whether anyone ever leaves that X-ray machine unattended.