DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Twenty years ago, British singer, songwriter and guitarist Nick Lowe released the album "The Convincer," which many fans and critics regard as his best. Now Lowe's released a new remastered version of the album, with some new material from the era never previously released on vinyl or digital services.
Today, we're going to listen to parts of two of Terry's interviews with Nick Lowe. Lowe got his start in the mid-'70s in the pub rock era. He was a member of the band Brinsley Schwarz and the band Rockpile, and he produced some of Elvis Costello's early work. Lowe's best-known songs include "Cruel To Be Kind" and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, And Understanding."
Terry spoke to Nick Lowe after the original release of "The Convincer," just a few weeks after the September 11 attacks. He came to the FRESH AIR studio to record a short concert for us, even though his throat was a little scratchy from recent performances.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS: Nick Lowe, I want to welcome you back to FRESH AIR. You know, after September 11, it took me a couple of weeks to get back to listening to some music, partly because I'd been so tuned into all the news on radio and TV. Then the first thing I popped in the CD player after this long break from listening was your CD, and, boy, you sounded good.
NICK LOWE: Oh, well, that's wonderful.
GROSS: So I'm really glad to share your voice with our listeners now. Why don't we start with a song from the new CD? And this is called "Between Darkness And Dawn (ph)." And I think it's - in its own way, it really speaks to the moment.
LOWE: OK. Here we go.
(Singing, playing guitar) When you feel you're all in, and you've decided you can't win, tell yourself it won't be for long. You're between dark and dawn. You've got too much time you can't kill. Your wheels are spinning, but you're standing still. It's all flat and forlorn in between dark and dawn. You're so blue. You can't see one day all this will be history. Now, I've been a fool, but I'm not wrong. You're between dark and dawn. You're between dark and dawn. Between dark and dawn - that's were nothing's always going on. You'll be on the phone before too long. But right now, you're between dark and dawn, between dark and dawn. You're between dark and dawn, between dark and dawn. You're between dark and dawn.
GROSS: That's Nick Lowe performing in our studio. That song is also on his new CD, "The Convincer." I've been thinking about one of your songs lately, "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding," which is a song that Elvis Costello also recorded. It's a song with an interesting history because it seems to drift back-and-forth between irony and realness (laughter), irony and sincerity or something. Do you want to talk a little bit about the history of the song and the different meanings it's taken on over the years?
LOWE: Yes. It's a really funny one, that song, because I always think of it as being the first truly original idea I had - was that. I couldn't believe my luck when I thought up that title because this was about 1973, I would think, that I thought it up. And I can remember being - sort of giving myself a talking to and saying, now, look. This is a really good little thing, this. Don't be too clever with this and make it too comical. Try and make the verse a bit opaque and let the title do the talking because the title is it, and it's quite a nice little tune. But it's one of those songs which sadly is - it never becomes redundant. You know, you'd think that by now, no one would have to sing this damn thing anymore. But they do. I really hope the day comes when it's forgotten, really.
GROSS: Well, I think it's going to have to be sung one more time. Do you want to do a bit of it for us?
LOWE: Sure. Yes, certainly.
(Singing, playing guitar) As I walk this wicked world, searching for light in the darkness of insanity, oh, yeah, I ask myself, is all hope gone? Is there only pain, hatred and misery? Oh, yes. And each time I feel like this inside, there's one thing I want to know. What's so funny 'bout peace, love and understanding? What's so funny 'bout peace, love and understanding? And as I walk on through troubled times, my spirit gets so downhearted sometimes, sometimes. Where are the strong? And who are the trusting? And where is the harmony, sweet harmony? - because each time I feel it slipping away, it just makes me want to cry. What's so funny 'bout peace, love and understanding? What's so funny 'bout peace, love and understanding? What's so funny 'bout peace, love and understanding, understanding, brother? - understanding, sister? - understanding?
GROSS: That's Nick Lowe performing in our studio. That sounded great. How does it sound to you now? I do think there's times when it's had this ironic cast to it.
LOWE: Yes. I think when I thought it up originally, it was - everything was changing. The old hippie ideals were going, and everyone was getting a bit slick and knowing. And - so it seemed to me, anyway. And so it was - I originally thought it up as some poor old hippie saying, oh, well, I might be on the way out, you know, but there's one thing I know...
LOWE: ...You know, that - what is so funny about this thing? You all think that you're so clever now, you know? But it wasn't really until this - Costello recorded it, and he gave it this whole other slant. And it was like this kind of anthem and this sort of anthemic thing. And so I can't remember this. The original idea of it has kind of disappeared.
GROSS: I was reading a review of your new CD by a reviewer who really liked it a lot and was praising you for being in your early 50s and coming up with songs that suit your age, as opposed to writing teenage kind of songs or just kind of writing beyond your period of talent, (laughter) you know?
LOWE: Oh, well.
GROSS: So - but anyways, do you feel like your songwriting has changed over the years? Do you feel like you're writing a different kind of song now...
LOWE: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: ...Either lyrically or melodically?
LOWE: Yes, I think so - yes. I - well, you know, I had this brief career as a pop star in the '70s. And while it was going on, I knew that it was going to be over one day. And I didn't have that sort of Cher, Elton John...
LOWE: ...Kind of thing, you know, where they managed to have that - those - their careers just stride on through the decades. You know, I knew I didn't have that.
GROSS: It's 'cause you don't have the right clothes.
LOWE: (Laughter) Yes. Well, I think Elton would be kind of cross if he heard you say that.
LOWE: But anyway, I was - I told myself that I had to figure out a way when my little time, you know, being quoted and being in the papers and things was over, that I have to figure out a way of recording and writing for myself so that I could use the fact I was getting older as an asset, as opposed to it being a handicap. It's only really in pop music that it is. It's not in jazz. You know, you can't be too old in jazz to - or blues or even in country and western, although that's debatable. But in pop music, you've - you're clapped out and on the scrap heap of - by 30. So I thought, well, no, I'm going to figure out a way I can record myself so I can use it, so people will actually rather envy me...
LOWE: ...You know, for being in my 50s.
GROSS: Lucky guy.
LOWE: Ooh, hurry up. Kind of - wait till I get to be 50, you know? So I did start working on it, on my songs to reflect. It feels easy to do it. You don't feel foolish doing it - mutton dressed up as lamb and banging on about something that you don't really feel like anymore.
GROSS: Do you - could you, like, articulate what you think the differences between, say, a teenage love song that wouldn't quite work for you now and the kind of ballad that you might write now?
LOWE: Well, a teenage love song might work for me now, but I don't think me kind of boasting about my conquests on the road...
LOWE: ...You know, really would fly. That's the kind of thing that I can't really do anymore. And when I do shows...
GROSS: Well, did you ever?
LOWE: Yes. I'm ashamed to say I did, really. And, you know, that was all - it was all good fun at the time. But I'm not sure if I'm thinking of a song in particular, but it's that kind of thing. I used to do that.
GROSS: Why don't you play a song that I think does illustrate the kind of love song you're writing now? It's called "Let's Stay In And Make Love."
(Singing, playing guitar) I don't really care about tonight's affair. We don't have to go. The same crowd will be there, like they've been before at the last three in a row. Now you are waiting in the hall, and I'm on the stair looking at you from above. But I say, darling, just for a change, let's stay in and make love. Please don't get me wrong. I love to party long with my special girl. But there's some things in life more important than a busy social world. You say softly, darling, you're quiet tonight. And you're right 'cause what I'm thinking of is take off your dress. Let's stay in and make love. Let's take a break - precious moments to steal. Let's forget the chattering crowd and getting down to what's really real. Da, da...
DAVIES: Nick Lowe, recorded in the FRESH AIR studios in 2001. After a break, we'll hear some of Terry's conversation with Lowe from 2011. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF NICK LOWE SONG, "I LOVE MY LABEL")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're listening to some of our interviews with British singer-songwriter and guitarist Nick Lowe. There's a new remastered anniversary edition of Lowe's 2001 album "The Convincer." Next, we'll hear some of Terry's conversation with Lowe recorded in 2011, when he'd released his album "The Old Magic." Again, he brought his guitar into the FRESH AIR studio.
GROSS: So what came first in your life, the desire to perform or the desire to write songs?
LOWE: Oh, to perform, I think - I was a terrible showoff as a child. And my mom would sort of wheel me out. My parents were both very sociable, you know, and used to throw quite a lot of parties. And I was sort of wheeled out, you know, at quite an early age to do my latest party piece, you know? And I was very pleased, you know, when that happened. So I was...
GROSS: Was that guitar or piano?
LOWE: Yeah, with guitar. No, I can't play the piano, unfortunately.
GROSS: Oh, OK.
LOWE: So, yes, I was wheeled out to do my latest Lonnie Donegan song or pop song, you know?
GROSS: And when you got to, like, high school age, where people were starting bands, you were playing with Brinsley Schwarz then.
LOWE: Yes. So I went to school with him. And he - and we had a band at school. And I became the bass player because no one else really wanted to play the bass back then. I had a friend who was pretty good at woodwork, and he made me one in the woodwork class.
GROSS: Wow. Did it sound good?
LOWE: Not really, no. You couldn't really hear it at all. But - and you had to tune it with a pair of pliers as well. The - we couldn't get the tuners for the thick strings, you know?
GROSS: Do you think that helped you as a songwriter, playing bass, because you're hearing more, like, chords and bass lines?
LOWE: I do, actually, yes, because I've got a - quite a rudimentary guitar style. But it's very - I mean, I can demonstrate...
GROSS: Sure, yeah. Please.
LOWE: ...To you what I mean. I call this - this song called "Raining," which has got a very simple little bass line that goes like...
(Singing, playing guitar) It's sunny and dry without a cloud in the sky. But here inside, it's raining. Lovers go for a stroll dressed up in summery clothes. But in here, it's cold and raining. It's raining so hard. How I wish it would stop raining, raining, raining.
LOWE: So you can hear the bass sort of going through it. And that sort of informed that song. I mean, I remember when I thought it out, it was very simple and kind of - not exactly original. It's like a little soul progression, you know? But it sort of suggests the melody. You know, it's simple. And it's kind of sad.
GROSS: Well, my guest is Nick Lowe. And he's performing some songs for us from his new album "The Old Magic." And I'm going to ask you to do another song that's called "House For Sale." Really, again, another really beautiful song. Would you perform it for us?
LOWE: Yeah, sure.
(Singing, playing guitar) House for sale, I'm moving out. I'm moving on. This bird has flown. House for sale, I'll tell you where to redirect my mail. House for sale, take a look inside. This is where love once did reside. But now it's gone. And that's the reason I'll be traveling on. Well, the roof's given in to the weather. And the windows rattle and moan. Paint is peeling, cracks in the ceiling. Whatever's happened to my happy home? House for sale, I've had enough. I'll send a van to get my stuff. House for sale, I'm leaving like I'm getting out of jail. Doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo (ph).
(Singing, playing guitar) The stairs are alarmingly shaky, and the carpet, threadbare and worn. Fence needs mending. Garden needs tending. How soon? It's become overgrown. Whoa. House for sale. I've had enough. I'll send a van to get my stuff. House for sale. I'm leaving like I'm getting out of jail. I'm leaving like I'm getting out of jail. House for sale. I'm talking to you because with time, care, cash, peace, love and understanding, it can be as good as new - house for sale, house for sale.
DAVIES: Nick Lowe in the FRESH AIR studio, recorded in 2011. He's released a new remastered edition of his 2001 album, "The Convincer," with some new material from the era. After a short break, we'll hear more of Terry's 2011 conversation with Nick Lowe and some music he performed in our studio that day. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're listening to some of Terry's interviews with British singer-songwriter and guitarist Nick Lowe and some music he performed in our studio. Lowe has released a new remastered edition of his 2001 album "The Convincer" with some new material from the era never previously released on vinyl or digital services. Let's get back to Terry's 2011 interview with Nick Lowe when he just released his album "The Old Magic."
GROSS: I want to - although you're playing songs from your new album and some other songs as well, I want to actually play a track from the album because I want people to hear the production, which is so good. And you're a record producer as well as a songwriter and performer, and you produced Elvis Costello's - what? - first five albums. Do I have that right?
LOWE: Yes, I think so.
GROSS: And the production on this album is really good. The arrangements are really good. So I thought I'd choose something that I think shows that off pretty well. And the song is called "Checkout Time." And this is going to change up the pace a little bit. This is a livelier song, although it's a song that has something to do with death (laughter).
GROSS: So - talk about writing the song, and then we'll talk about the production.
LOWE: Well, I was sort of idly watching the TV one day, and the melody came into my head. I was just holding a guitar and playing a few chords as sometimes - quite often happens. And I came up with the tune. And I sort of heard Johnny Cash in my head saying, I'm 61 years old now; I never thought I'd see 30. And it sounds - as I said earlier on, I'm not really an autobiographical songwriter, and that is pretty autobiographical thing to say. But I thought it was so sort of funny, really, 'cause I don't think it's a very serious song. You know, even though it is about death...
GROSS: But you just said it's autobiographical. So you didn't think you'd live to see 30?
LOWE: Yeah, I think there were times, you know, that - when you were - well, it might be in any kind of walk of life. But when you're young and especially if you're in, as I was, in rock 'n' roll bands in the 1970s, when everybody seemed to be very excited about everything, it was - there were quite a lot of opportunities for disaster to befall a lusty young man, you know, climbing out of windows and all along - I mean, I remember climbing out of a hotel window, you know, to surprise someone who was in the room next door, you know, sort of five or six stories up.
GROSS: Were you high or just eager?
LOWE: Well, high was your word, Terry.
LOWE: I would just say - I would think eager is probably...
LOWE: Yeah, I was just mad, you know, like - not mad, but yes, eager. Thank you for that.
GROSS: (Laughter) So OK, you mentioned you heard Johnny Cash singing this. And I was going to suggest Johnny Cash 'cause it's a very Cash recording kind of bass guitar sound...
GROSS: ...On this.
GROSS: But as well as organ - so did you do the arrangement for this or have input into the arrangement for this recording?
LOWE: Yes. I suppose that's my job. It's very nice of you to say how much you like the production and the sound and things like that, but I have a lot of help. You know, the guys I play with are - I've played with them quite a long time, and it's very much a sort of cooperative effort. They're not just hired session men. You know, they are into the - my trip, you know, and the way I take great care in making my records sound a certain way.
And I know it's not to everyone's taste. I mean, I'm pretty - it's - I would - I wish it were otherwise. But I think because of the way I like my records to sound, I will never be a mainstream artist because whereas some people are delighted by the sort of homemade quality of my records, other people - it makes most people feel kind of nervous because they're - they've been trained to hear faultless recordings because most of them are made on computers. And they don't have any mistakes on them unless they're by - really by design.
Now, you know, I don't want to sound like I'm a Luddite, you know. Or - I know there's great records which are made in the modern way, you know, so I'm not saying, oh, my way or, you know - and nothing else will do - definitely not. But this is the way that suits me, and I think that it sounds really good. But I know that most people don't agree (laughter).
GROSS: Well, I want to give our listeners a chance to hear this track. So this is called "Checkout Time." And this is from Nick Lowe's new album "The Old Magic."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHECKOUT TIME")
LOWE: (Singing) I'm 61 years old now. Lord, I never thought I'd see 30. Though I know this road is still someway to go, I can't help thinking on, will I be beloved and celebrated for my masterly climb - or just another bum when it comes to checkout time? I'm fearful my chances of crossing over Jordan into glory may be compromised by the pies I've had my fingers in. Must I be condemned, forever damned for some long-forgotten crime or singing "Rock Of Ages" with the angels soon after checkout time?
GROSS: That's Nick Lowe from his new album "The Old Magic," and the song is called "Checkout Time."
Are you worried about your legacy? You said this song is kind of autobiographical, unlike many of your songs.
LOWE: No, I'm not. No, I don't really, you know, waste too much time thinking about that. It's sort of - it's sort of pompous. There's lines in it about crossing over Jordan into glory and things like that, which I think are sort of - well, they're really fun to sing, those kind of gospel lyrics, you know, but I don't really believe that at all. I just like singing it.
GROSS: Now, I read in Billboard one of the first songs - well, one of the first performers who you really loved was Tennessee Ernie Ford...
LOWE: Oh yeah.
GROSS: ...American country singer, very deep voice. And when I was a kid, one of the early songs I remember on the radio was Tennessee Ernie Ford singing "16 Tons." And I started to tell you before we did the soundcheck that that song used to terrify me as a child because it's about death, and it's about not being able to die yet because you owe your soul to the company store. And growing up in Brooklyn, I had no idea what a company store was. But I knew 16 tons, like, that weighs a lot.
GROSS: And there's a song about death and lyrics about muscle and blood. And I thought, oh, God, this is scary stuff. Would you tell us why you like that song and maybe do a few bars of it?
LOWE: Well, I was a little boy, of course. So muscle and blood and death and everything are far more appealing, I suppose...
LOWE: ...To the species, you know? But again, his voice, I thought - although, I liked some of his other stuff, like his sort of boogie things. He did "Shotgun Boogie." And he had another one about food called "Fatback, Louisiana, U.S.A.," which is all about food and kind of food I'd never heard of. And thinking about, (singing) let me tell you, when you get a call down there, you're going to get a ham gravy that'll curl your hair.
LOWE: And something about black-eyed pea - let me tell you, boy, when you're ill, you get a black-eyed pea instead of a pill. I'd never heard of black-eyed peas or grits or any of these things he was singing about. But it was his voice. And I think in "Sixteen Tons," it was his voice I just thought was unbelievable.
And I was - actually, the other week, I was doing this sort of Q&A thing at the Grammy Museum in LA and mentioned Tennessee Ernie because my mom, for some reason when I was very young, amongst her Sinatra and Nat King Cole records - Doris Day and Peggy Lee. She had some really great records. But she had these two Tennessee Ernie Ford 10-inch LPs. I don't know where she got them from. But it was my sort of introduction to country music, really, even though I know now that it was from California. It wasn't the Nashville kind. It was the sort of Bakersfield kind of country. But I just thought it sounded unbelievable. And his voice was just something else.
GROSS: Can you do a little bit of "Sixteen Tons"?
LOWE: I'll have a go, yes.
(Singing) You load 16 tons. What do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt. Saint Peter, don't you call me 'cause I can't go. I owe my soul to the company store.
GROSS: That sounds great. So you've known country music for a long time. I think, over the years, it sounds like your songwriting has become more and more immersed in country kind of music.
LOWE: Yes. I've always liked it. But I like all sorts of other kinds...
LOWE: ...Of popular - certainly American popular music as well. But I'm very anxious not to sort of cop some kind of half-baked Nashville thing or Memphis thing, or New Orleans thing. I like what happens to it when it crosses the Atlantic because I'm very anxious to keep a European sort of thing in it, so it keeps it light, you know, and is not confused for the real thing.
DAVIES: Nick Lowe, speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 2011. We'll hear more of their conversation and more music after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE'S "SUPERA")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're listening to Terry's 2011 interview with British singer-songwriter and guitarist Nick Lowe. There's a new remastered anniversary edition of Lowe's 2001 album "The Convincer." She asked him about being a pop star early in his career.
GROSS: So you wanted a taste of that big fame and that big, like, international success. Probably, the height of your fame was when you had "Cruel To Be Kind."
LOWE: Yes, that was - I think it was. That was the height of my...
GROSS: It was, like, '79.
GROSS: So how did it feel? Like, what was, like, a high or a low point of actually getting the fame?
LOWE: Looking back on it now, it was a very curious time because it felt as if it was just my turn. I didn't - I don't remember being really excited. And, I mean, it was really great fun, you know, the perks of the job, so to speak, you know? I mean, it lasted about three or four years, my - what I describe as my brief career as a pop star. And it was very good fun. And the perks were obvious. You know, you get a table in a restaurant very easily, you know? And there's a lot of very exotic-looking girls who wanted to go out with you purely because you've been on the TV, you know, had your mug grinning out of the pages of the pop press.
GROSS: But that's part of what you wanted, isn't it?
LOWE: Yeah. Yes. But it seemed that it was just my turn. It didn't seem like I did - I really - you know, when we were striving away for this. It was like almost a voice said, you know, right, son, step forward. It's your go now. What have you got? But most people, they get a shot. And then it's all over. And if they can score a little - nice, little apartment and a decent car out of it, then they've done well.
But when my time finished, I was - I had very mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was sorry that - to see it go. And, you know, you know that the public has got fed up with you. They've moved on. On the other hand, I was ill. It had made me ill. I was completely exhausted and washed out. And so I was relieved on one hand that it was - I could actually lie low, you know? And...
GROSS: Why did it make you ill?
LOWE: Well, I was drinking like a fish, you know, and having to keep on coming up with new stuff, you know, and producing this - and the feeling of, whoa, grab it while it's there, you know? It just completely drains you.
GROSS: So did you go through this big depression afterwards?
LOWE: I suppose I did. But it wasn't - you know, I'm not really a poor-me type person. But I had paused, after I'd sort of started - lied down in a darkened room, you know, for a few months...
LOWE: ...I started to think about what my situation was. And I sort of thought, well, look; you've done pretty well here, you know? You've had a few hits and produced some pretty good stuff and written some stuff for other people, you know, and done all right. But here you are, sir, in your 30s on the scrap heap. And I didn't feel as if I'd really done anything really good - really, really good. And I started to figure out a way I can use the fact I'm getting older in this business that has no use for older people - but I wanted to figure out a way I can use the fact I'm getting older to - as a distinct advantage. So...
GROSS: How do you feel you've done that?
LOWE: Well, a funny thing is that I always used to hear these old-timers say this - what I thought was a real copout, kind of cliche. In fact, I must say that Johnny Cash himself said this to me - Nick, all you've got to do is be yourself. I mean, you've heard people say that, haven't you? Oh, it's easy. Just be yourself. And I always used to think, that's complete nonsense. What do you mean - be yourself? No one wants to see me, my - you know, they want to see something magnificent on the stage, not me. But in fact, that's exactly what you have to find a way of doing. But then you can never be outed as a phony. You know, they can not like you. That's - of course, somebody...
GROSS: Had you felt that you had not been yourself before that?
LOWE: Oh, yeah, sure. When you're young, you're anything but yourself, really. You're trying to get attention and...
GROSS: Have a look.
LOWE: Yeah, have a look. And getting - well, I still like to have a look and...
GROSS: An attitude, yeah.
LOWE: And, yeah, I still enjoy that side of it, too. But, yes, you're insecure, you know, when you're starting out, unless you're really something special. But most people are insecure and trying to copy their heroes, the way they think their heroes are, anyway.
GROSS: Well, as you know, I love your music, and I want you to do one more song for us.
GROSS: And this is another song from your new album, "The Old Magic," and it's called "Somebody Cares For Me."
LOWE: (Singing, playing guitar) I'm on a lonely street, but nobody told my feet. They're walking on air 'cause somebody cares for me. I'm in a blue hotel room like a prison cell, but I'd sleep on the stairs while somebody cares for me. In a dim saloon, any time before noon, there's an empty chair 'cause somebody cared for me. I find myself in church. I don't go in here much. But I'm saying a prayer 'cause somebody cares for me. It's like I filled a hole that was shaped all wrong with a piece of the puzzle that's been missing all along. If you think I'm glad, I'll say I'm more than that. I'm glad as can be that somebody cared for me. Oh, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, boo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo.
(Singing, playing guitar) Well, it's like I filled a hole up that was shaped all wrong with a piece of a jigsaw puzzle that's been missing for too, too long. If you think I'm glad, I'll say you've got that, Dad. I got more than my share 'cause somebody cares for me. I'm glad, so glad, I'm glad as can be - somebody cares for me.
GROSS: Oh, that's great. Nick Lowe, thank you so much for performing for us. I love it when you come on the show. Thank you so much.
LOWE: Great pleasure, Terry. Thank you.
GROSS: It's great to have you.
DAVIES: Nick Lowe, recorded in the FRESH AIR studio in 2011. He's released a new remastered edition of his 2001 album, "The Convincer." Coming up, Justin Chang reviews "No Time To Die," the last James Bond feature starring Daniel Craig. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF HANS ZIMMER'S "GUN BARREL")
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. "No Time To Die" was one of the first major Hollywood releases postponed in the wake of theater shutdowns last spring. Now this fifth and final feature starring Daniel Craig as James Bond is finally opening this week. Our film critic Justin Chang has a review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: It's been more than a year since "No Time To Die" was supposed to open in theaters, and while the pandemic is far from over, the movie's long-overdue release feels like a good omen for an industry that could use it. Never mind if James Bond can save the world; can he save the movies in the era of COVID and streaming service domination? I have no idea. I can only say that it's a poignant pleasure to see Daniel Craig as Bond on the big screen one last time, even if the movie around him is seldom as good as he is. But then that's always been the case with the Craig Bond movies, with the sole exception of "Casino Royale," the first and still the best of the five.
Craig put his imprint on the character from the get-go. Like any good 007, he showed he could rock a tuxedo and toss off double-entendres with ease. But he was also a colder, broodier James Bond - closer to Sean Connery than Roger Moore, but with an aching vulnerability all his own. With this Bond, it was personal. We saw just how anguished he could be when he lost the love of his life, Vesper Lynd, a tragedy that haunted him over the next few movies and continues to haunt him in this one.
As "No Time To Die" begins, Bond has been retired from active MI6 duty for some time and started a new life with Madeleine Swann, played by Lea Seydoux. But he can't shake the memory of Vesper. And before long, tragedy tears Bond and Madeleine apart, setting a somber tone that's beautifully captured by Billie Eilish's opening theme song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO TIME TO DIE")
BILLIE EILISH: (Singing) Was I stupid to love you? Was I reckless to help? Was it obvious to everybody else that I'd fallen for a lie? You were never on my side. Fool me once, fool me twice - are you death or paradise? Now you'll never see me cry. There's just no time to die.
CHANG: Five years later, Bond is bumming around Jamaica when a fresh criminal conspiracy convinces him to end his retirement. The plot is too busy and complicated to summarize at length. Let's just say it involves a deadly plague of DNA-targeting nanobots that could wipe out millions of people worldwide, which feels just close enough to our real-life pandemic to suggest why the studio might have opted to hold the picture back a year. That said, nothing about "No Time To Die" feels especially timely or urgent. It's the usual assembly of Bond-movie cliches, which is nothing to complain about, of course, since cliches - the gadgets, the one-liners, the martinis, the sex - are the lifeblood of the series.
But more than once during "No Time To Die," I found myself wondering if those familiar beats couldn't have been hit with a bit more panache. Did it really take four screenwriters, including the great Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the comic genius behind "Fleabag," to come up with a script this workmanlike? And between Christoph Waltz as returning villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld and Rami Malek as new villain Lyutsifer Safin, did the movie really need two scheming megalomaniacs, both of whom have facial disfigurements to conveniently signal how evil they are?
Back at MI6, Lashana Lynch plays a highly competent new spy who's been assigned Bond's 007 code number. But their professional rivalry never really takes off. The movie is on more solid footing with Bond's old colleagues. Ralph Fiennes' M, Naomie Harris' Moneypenny and Ben Whishaw's Q are as delightful company as ever. And the terrific, if underused, Ana de Armas nearly steals the picture as an agent who teams up with Bond during a mission in Havana. It's a witty, suspenseful sequence with enough flirtatious fun and outlandish stunt work to recapture some of that escapist Bond-movie pleasure.
For the most part, that pleasure returns only fitfully over the movie's two-hour-and-43-minute running time. But director Cary Joji Fukunaga, whose credits include the African war drama "Beasts Of No Nation" and the first season of "True Detective," is a skilled filmmaker with a snazzy way with action. But this is a twilight Bond movie, and the mood is overwhelmingly somber. There are continual reminders of Bond's advancing age, of his past regrets and losses.
The final showdown feels less like a climax than a benediction. Craig has been a terrific James Bond, maybe even the best. And his departure certainly deserves a little fanfare. But I admired the impulse behind this very long goodbye without feeling as moved as I wanted to be. There's something a little too strained and self-conscious about the tragic emotional arc the filmmakers have saddled Bond with over the past several movies, and it feels like more than the character can withstand. Will Bond ever be allowed to be Bond again, a dashing rogue leaping deftly from caper to caper? Not this time, but maybe the next.
DAVIES: Justin Chang is the film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed the new James Bond movie "No Time To Die."
On Monday's show, we get the inside story of the daring and improbable rescue of a youth soccer team in Thailand trapped in an underground cave by rising waters in 2018. We'll speak with veteran diver Rick Stanton, who came from England to help with the effort, and filmmakers Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. Their new documentary is "The Rescue." I hope you can join us.
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(SOUNDBITE OF JERRY GRANELLI'S "MEET ME IN THE MORNING")
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