Whisper it ever so quietly, but I think we might just be through the worst that winter has to throw at us.
I’m writing this down in Dorset, and though there was a ferocious wind at West Bay, whipping up huge waves that broke spectacularly over the pier, and a peculiarly spiteful heavy shower, precisely angled so that the rain penetrated deep into my left ear as I walked along the prom, it was nothing like as cold as it has been.
Better still, the roadside verges in our village of Netherbury are blessed with beautiful clumps of snowdrops, planted by the brilliant local wildlife photographer Colin Varndell and a team of volunteers, which lift the spirits whenever you see them.
I no longer feel the need to crawl into bed and hibernate whenever I have any time off. And a month from now we will reach that blessed moment when British Summer Time begins. As Larkin writes in his beautiful poem ‘The Trees’: ‘Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.’
Of course, as Larkin characteristically insists, each new spring is a reminder that another year has passed, and ‘we grow old’. And it is with a feeling of genuine astonishment that I realise I will turn 57 next month. Where did all that time go? And why did I waste so much of it drinking to oblivion, recovering from hellish hangovers and then starting the whole futile cycle all over again? But there is no point in dwelling morbidly on the past. How blessed I was to have a chance to begin afresh.
Nevertheless 57 does seem scarily old, a fact cruelly emphasised by a government form I received the other day informing me of the start date of my state pension. Needless to say, they are delaying payment until I’m 66, rather than the previous 65, but it seems strange to think I am now in the last decade of my working life, though of course the end could come sooner, through death, disability or redundancy.
But these are winter thoughts and spring is just around the corner. What’s more, maturity has its compensations as a couple of superb recent albums confirm. I have long had a soft spot for Chris Isaak (55), whose songs such as ‘Wicked Game’ and ‘Blue Hotel’ add an atmospherically spooky twist to classic rock and roll, and whose music has been much used by that brilliantly disconcerting film and TV director David Lynch.
Now Isaak has released a brilliant album of rock-and-roll covers called Beyond the Sun, which he recorded at the Sun Studio in Memphis where Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis all cut their early discs under the direction of the brilliant studio boss Sam Phillips. As Isaak writes in his sleeve notes, to have found just one of those artists would have been a claim to fame. To have discovered all five and got such amazing performances out of them is simply astonishing.
Isaak and his band bring a zinging freshness to such great numbers as ‘Great Balls of Fire’, ‘I Walk the Line’, ‘Miss Pearl’, ‘Pretty Woman’ and ‘I Forgot to Remember to Forget’, songs he first heard listening to his parents’ record collection as a child and that have inspired him ever since.
Strangely enough, there is a similar parental influence on Paul McCartney’s new album, Kisses on the Bottom (the cheeky title comes from a Fats Waller song). McCartney, who will be 70 in June, goes even further back in time, reviving the songs his parents, friends and relations used to sing when they had get-togethers around the piano played by his dad.
Backed by the classy jazz pianist Diana Krall and her band, and occasionally augmented by strings, and guest artists such as Eric Clapton and Stevie Wonder, Macca takes a trip down memory lane with songs such as ‘It’s Only a Paper Moon’, ‘Always’, ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ and ‘Get Yourself Another Fool’, which comes across as a bitter kiss-off to Heather Mills.
There are also a couple of McCartney originals, ‘My Valentine’ and ‘Only Our Hearts’ inspired by his new wife, Nancy. They are sweet and touching and fit in seamlessly with the older songs.
McCartney’s voice now seems frailer and thinner than it used to, and he certainly doesn’t swing like Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra. Nevertheless, there is a mixture of sincerity and vulnerability here which proves captivating. McCartney always had a gift for an old-fashioned melody, as such Beatles’ songs as ‘Yesterday’, ‘When I’m 64’ and ‘Your Mother Should Know’ all testify. This new record of mostly old numbers feels like a labour of love, and in going back to the music his parents played and sang, McCartney has come up with his most enjoyable album since Band on the Run almost 40 years ago.
Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated February 25, 2012