Nick Lowe: “Jesus of Cool– 30th Anniversary Edition”

Nick Lowe has spent the last fifteen years quietly mining the fertile terrain of country-rock and classic R&B, releasing four albums in a row that simply exhude charm, effortless and graceful. They sound like they took a good deal of time to tinker with, simmering in the studio until they were just right– making something sound effortless, after all, usually takes a lot of work– and they’re delightful albums all, with Lowe embracing his role as one of rock’s elder statesmen and making warm, elegant records that play to his strengths while remembering that he’s not a youngster anymore. Great though they may be, however, they almost make it easy to forget that, back in the day, Nick Lowe made very different sorts of records; he was, after all, nicknamed Basher early in his career, a reference to both his quick, intuitive approach to record-making and the freewheeling energy and delightfully messy nature of his albums.

His other nickname: Jesus of Cool, a title that encapsulates not only his importance to the New Wave movement– he produced classic albums by Elvis Costello and the Pretenders, after all, and led the seminal band Rockpile, along with friend Dave Edmunds– but also his charisma and his sense of humor. This name also served as the title to his first solo album, which, despite being re-titled and shuffled around for its U.S. release and being out of print in America for decades, remains a classic, an album that defined its genre and its era. Befitting an album of its status, though, Jesus of Cool has finally been re-issued in the U.S. by Yep Roc, with an assortment of bonus songs and a newly-restored title and tracklisting.
The album was ahead of its time in 1978, and it still sounds great today. Lowe’s innovative production still sounds edgy, even though it’s been frequently immitated; these songs still shake and pop with just the right combination of garage-rock energy and studio sheen.

What makes it great, though, is Lowe’s set of songs– perhaps the best batch he ever penned. For all intents and purposes, this might be the first ever postmodern pop album– music about music, or at least, music about the music industry. Lowe had had a long and pained struggle with various record labels, and only he could get away with penning such biting, sarcastic send-ups of the industry’s sleeze as “Music for Money” and “Shake and Pop.” He pulls it off because he’s got a lot more than anger fueling his lyrics; like all Nick Lowe albums, this one is marked by both its smirking humor and its big heart, the former of which is plainly evident when he muses about castrating Castro on “Nutted by Reality” and contemplates what went wrong with “Little Hitler” on the song of the same name; the latter pokes through most clearly in “Tonight,” Lowe’s first dip into romantic ballady.

It also works because he doesn’t just know a lot about the music industry, he also knows a lot about music— specifially, pop music, as the original U.S. title, Pure Pop for Now People, indicates. And so he howls through his deliciously deadpan songs set against McCartney-style pop (“Marie Provost”), breakneck rock (“Heart of the City”), a Chuck Berry homage (“Shake and Pop”), and ridiculously infectious radio sing-alongs (“So it Goes”). It’s like a jukebox of classicist pop, funneled through Lowe’s one-of-a-kind sense of humor and his knack for strong hooks and and relentless energy.

The bonus songs on Yep Roc’s re-release prove that, in 1978, Lowe was writing more great songs than he knew what to do with; many of these tracks have previously seen the light of day on other compilations, but it’s still a joy to have the not-so-subtle sarcasm of “I Love My Label” and the original take of “Cruel to Be Kind” on the same disc as these other classic songs. It’s also fun to hear “They Called it Rock,” a slightly sped-up version of “Shake and Pop,” which gives an interesting perspective into Lowe’s creative process.
Whatever you want to call Nick Lowe– and whatever you want to call this record– he’s a true original, and no album makes the case quite so memorably as this one. The music he’s making today is timeless and delightful– his muse is still very much alive– but this is the album that introduced his vision to the world, and this is the album that remains essential.

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