The most distressing line on Nick Lowe’s new album goes like this: “I’m 61 years old now/ Lord, I never thought I’d see 30.’’
If he hadn’t made it, we would have missed out on the stretch of exquisite pop albums the English singer-songwriter has been crafting over the past two decades. From his origins as a knockabout pub rocker in the 1970s to his reinvention as a refined crooner with a shock of silver hair, Lowe has split his career into two fascinating flip sides. Both are compelling.
“The Old Magic,’’ Lowe’s latest album, is a particularly fine collection of country heartache wrapped up in after-hours sophistication. If its songs were chocolates, you’d swear they were too pretty to eat. But in a live setting, such as Lowe’s performance at the Wilbur Theatre on Thursday, he loosens his grip on the elegance for something more tangible.
With a nimble four-piece band behind him, Lowe was a man for all seasons. Motown lurked in the melody of “Sensitive Man,’’ and on “Stoplight Roses’’ and “House for Sale’’ (“House for sale/ I’m leaving like I’m getting out of jail’’) Lowe channeled the kind of soulful country Charlie Rich mastered.
It was interesting to watch Lowe’s body language shift when he revisited his early work. On “Raging Eyes’’ and “Cruel to Be Kind,’’ he adopted the classic rocker stance - hips cocked, left leg bouncing. “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock ’n’ Roll)’’ retained the Chuck Berry groove of the original. But “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding,’’ a hit for Elvis Costello, was recast as a poignant ballad.
Lowe tipped his cap to Costello with his final encore, a bare-bones rendition of Costello’s “Alison.’’ Lowe ended the set the way he had started it: alone on acoustic guitar, casting a spell with the power of his voice and the way it savors each word he sings.
Working over his electric guitar, punctuated by wild wails into the microphone, Eli “Paperboy’’ Reed opened the show like a one-man soul revue. It was a rare solo outing for the Brookline native, who usually performs with a full band, and a prime opportunity to see how much he has evolved. In both his singing and playing, he showcased a bravado he had yet to harness back when he was gigging around Boston.
He’s still a tough self-critic, though. At one point Reed was dismayed by what he heard. “Sometimes I forget how much I suck at the guitar,’’ he said, an observation most of the crowd must have dismissed as false modesty.James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.