Given Nick Lowe's substantial backlog of old favorites, the announcement early in his Keswick Theatre show Sunday night that he'd be devoting a substantial chunk of the evening to showcasing songs from his latest album, The Old Magic, could have been cause for concern. But not to worry, Lowe assured the crowd: "If you cut me open, you'll find one word written through me like a stick of rock — quality entertainment."
Like the hard candy to which he likened himself, Lowe's music is sugary but sharp, sweet to the taste but with edges that can wound. Over the course of his last five albums, beginning with 1994's The Impossible Bird, Lowe has toned down the caustic wit of his early albums, replacing their shiny pop with a more relaxed sound whose reference points range backward from the early days of rock-and-roll to the pasted-on cheer of vaudeville and music hall. With his right hand crisply strumming an acoustic guitar and his left leg pumping to the beat, Lowe transformed "Without Love," from his 1979 album Labour of Lust, from a honky-tonk pastiche into something more closely resembling the prerock skiffle that inspired the Beatles.
In his latter days, Lowe has embraced the role of craftsman. The Old Magic's "Stoplight Roses," with which he opened the show, is a perfect bit of pop construction in which a cellophane-wrapped bouquet doubles as the insufficient apology for a lover's transgression and a harbinger of his rapidly expiring shelf life. After two songs alone at the microphone, Lowe was joined by a backing quartet that included keyboardist Geraint Watkins and drummer Robert Treherne, whose relationships with their bandleader stretch back to the mid-1970s.
The overriding feeling on stage was one of lightness and ease. At less than 90 minutes, the show was barely long enough for Lowe to break a sweat, or to scratch the surface of his back catalog. With its tricky chords and breathy vocals, "I Read a Lot" was tasteful to the point of feeling slightly moribund, a vice that recurs periodically in Lowe's latter-day work. Lowe's practiced nonchalance can shade into diffidence, as if tossing off well-formed songs were something that no longer required his full attention. But when he dug deeper, the results could be thrilling. Returning the courtesy to Elvis Costello, who made Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" a lucrative hit, Lowe closed the show with a solo cover of Costello's "Alison." Lowe's voice had none of Costello's strangled menace, but the song's deadly obsession crept to the top all the same, the more entrancing for its dangerous beauty.