In the A.D. era of Christmas albums — that would be After Dylan — nobody who releases one can seem too dark a horse. Still, Nick Lowe, who called his first solo album “Jesus of Cool” (it was retitled in these more sensitive United States), isn’t the likeliest candidate.
Jolly. White-haired. A soothing presence with a butterscotch voice that never overreaches.
So far, so Christmasy. But wait.
Lowe was a fixture of the pub-rock and New Wave scenes of the 1970s and early ‘80s, specializing in wry, infectious power pop like “Cruel to Be Kind” and rave-ups like “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll).”
In the ’90s, his stuff got quieter. He became a songwriter’s songwriter, penning material for his onetime stepfather-in-law Johnny Cash, among others. Every half-decade or so he’d release another sub-40-minute set of keenly observed, unimpeachably tasteful songs. His mature work skews heavily disappointed and downtempo: “All Men Are Liars.” “Lately I’ve Let Things Slide.” “I Trained Her to Love Me,” from his 2007 album “At My Age,” is sung by a character as misogynistic as the guy in “Under My Thumb.”
From this guy, you want a Christmas album?
His label, Yep Roc Records, did.
“At the time, I could think of nothing I fancied less,” he says, speaking from his home in London. “I was sort of snobby about it.”
It took only a few hours of contemplation for him to warm to the idea.
“After I confronted it a bit, I thought, ‘This could be really good fun,’ ” he says. “And if the genre isn’t actually already dead, then I might stand a chance of being able to breathe some new life into it.”
The record he’s released under the winking moniker “Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection for All the Family” accomplishes that feat of CPR. It features only one universal yuletide standard, a brass-stoked “Silent Night.” The other 11 songs comprise a savory assortment of covers and traditional carols unfamiliar enough to sustain repeated listening, plus a handful of newly written original compositions.
He says a holiday album is a dodgier prospect at home in England than in the United States, where he played to amphitheater crowds opening for Wilco in 2011. (When he comes to town under his own shingle, he sticks to cozier venues like the Birchmere or the Barns at Wolf Trap.)
“The contrast between how these things are regarded over here and how these things are regarded in the United States couldn’t be more stark. Do you know the slang word ‘naff?’ ” he asks, spelling out the British adjective. “It means not exactly ‘uncool’ — it’s a bit sadder than that.”
He’s tried to duck that charge by being a shrewd curator.
“I needed to find songs that I could make it sound, in a way, as though I’d written them,” he says. He solicited suggestions from musician pals, and listened to “hundreds” to find the right mix. With the exception of Roy Wood’s “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day,” a pop gem from 1973 that’s become a seasonal staple in the U.K., the old songs he chose are mostly American.
He dropped his plan to record the 40 millionth “Blue Christmas” when he proved unable to prevent himself from singing it the way Cash had sung it. “He sounds so fed up, you know, on his version. It’s really, really great.”
Though “Quality Street’s” lineup is predominantly secular, it opens with a rollicking version of a straight-up biblical number, “Children, Go Where I Send Thee” — a song sung by Cash himself on his 1977 TV Christmas special.
“It’s been appropriated by the white folk gang over the years,” Lowe says. “The Kingston Trio come to mind; I’ve heard quite a few rather earnest versions. We put what we call a skiffle — a sort of English rockabilly — rhythm to it, and hey, presto: It’s got a pretty saucy old thing happening. And the words are so fabulous. Mysterious words about ‘Paul and Silas’ — who the heck are they?”
Lowe has also written three new songs for the album. Which is three more than he expected.
He was delayed at Zurich Airport the day after a gig (and some postshow celebrating with Mavis Staples) when the funniest of the new tunes, “Christmas at the Airport,” presented itself.
“I often find that can put you in quite a creative mood, that combination: Hanging around doing nothing with a little hangover,” he says. “Your mind starts to wander.” The song’s narrator sounds rather relieved to be spared Christmas with his extended family.
The more somber “Born in Bethlehem,” came after he dreamed the title — though it’s worth noting the phrase recurs in “Children, Go Where I Send Thee.”
“I sort of had this idea that you might be sitting next to Jesus on a plane,” he explains. “And after they’ve served a couple of cocktails, you start talking to this person, who is excited to tell you his amazing story. But in a conversational way, like he was a nice man you met on the plane.”
It’s not hard to imagine Cash singing that one.
The third new song arrived after he told his friend Ry Cooder about his seasonal recording project.
“He was very sniffy about it: ‘’Oh God, what are you wasting your time on that for?’ Then the next day he sent some lyrics,” Lowe laughs. The result, “A Dollar Short of Happy,” is a blues in the tradition of Charles Brown’s “Please Come Home for Christmas,” if Brown had sung about “getting high in the SUV.”
But at, 64, the age forever enshrined by Paul McCartney as a rock milestone, it’s not like he’s found a new career.
“I thought these records were for other people to make and for me to sort of snigger at,” he reflects. “Whilst enjoying them: ‘Oh, this is awful! Isn’t it great?’ I suppose I’ll listen to some of them with a bit more sympathy now.”
Klimek is a freelance writer.