Decades of Pleasure: Digging the Moods of Nick Lowe
There is a tall shelf in my library where I keep all the records from my favorite singer/songwriters– the Icons, I call them, at least in my own head. These are, indeed, the true architects of my musical imagination, and each one has a shelf entirely his or her own. Bob Dylan has two, actually, a sign of his sheer longevity as much as anything else; he and Joe Henry are way up at the very top of the shelf, an indication of the esteem in which I hold them both, really. Elvis Costello also has a couple of shelves; he’s surrounded by folks like Tom Waits, Sam Phillips, Nick Cave (complete with the Grinderman records, naturally), and Van Morrison.
On the bottom row, Costello’s old New Wave pal/Stiff producer/”What’s So Funny (About Peace, Love and Understanding)” writer Nick Lowe is enshrined, along with his full discography– and that includes not just the music he made under his own name, but also as a member of the seminal pub rock outfit Brinsley Schwarz and the unsung heroes Rockpile. And in a good many ways, Lowe is a very different kind of character from the others who populate this shelf, and I’m briefly tempted to say that what makes him different is the fact that, well, he just doesn’t take things so seriously.
But that’s not entirely accurate. True enough: Comb through his list of writing credits and you won’t find any socially-aware ballads in the vein of early Dylan (nothing any more specific than “What’s So Funny,” anyway), nothing to match the slippery spirituality and metaphysics of Van the Man, nothing even as musically sophisticated as his buddy Costello’s forays into jazz, orchestral pop, and opera. But to say that Lowe doesn’t take anything seriously is to miss the point entirely: He doesn’t take himself seriously. But when it comes to pop music, he is quite serious indeed.
Lowe has, for basically the duration of his career, made pop music about pop music– jokey and self-referential songs about the industry and about the rock and roll life. He does so with a sort of roguish charm, a subversive sense of humor, and a mean streak that can’t quite mask the big heart and romantic spirit that underpins everything he does. He does so with crackling energy– a proclivity toward working fast and leaving all the rough spots in tact earned him the nickname Basher way back when– and he does so with a loving attention to craft.
Nick Lowe is, indeed, one of the true icons of my musical imagination, and perhaps it is for the very reason that he is, in many ways, so different from the others on that shelf. His music has cultivated in me a deep appreciation for music that is carefully crafted to sound utterly spontaneous and alive– music that is warm and welcoming and designed to simply feel good and provide a fun time. This week marks the long-awaited CD re-release of one of Lowe’s most important albums– Labour of Lust, recorded with his greatest band (Rockpile) and featuring his biggest hit (“Cruel to Be Kind”). To celebrate, here are my picks for the five essential Nick Lowe recordings– a good starting point, I think, but be careful: You’re likely to find his music so addictive that, once you start, you’re going to need a whole shelf to house it all, eventually.
Nervous on the Road (1972; as part of Brinsley Schwarz)
The Brinsleys were, perhaps, the seminal band of the pub rock movement– I suppose some would argue for Dr. Feelgood, and that’s fair enough– and in many ways, this, their finest album, embodies everything that’s great about that music, and indeed, of Lowe’s music in general. At this point he had not quite gotten to the point of rattling off quirky little slices of perfect pure pop, bizarro humor and all, that he would exhibit on his later solo albums, but the seeds of it all are right here in the seven tracks Lowe wrote for Nervous on the Road: His jovial spirits, off-the-cuff spontaneity, good-times warmth, and his love for rock and roll. Indeed, this is very much a rock album about rock, stories from a hard-working band that never made it bit but nevertheless sang and played their hearts out night after night, in one pub after another. The songs are funny and sentimental but never saccharine, and the performances are warm, steady, and easy-going; included are the first great Lowe ballad, “Don’t Lose Your Grip On Love,” which sort of prefigures the loose country/R&B influences he would later wear so well, as well as quintessential working-band anthems “Happy Doing What We’re Doing” and “Surrender to the Rhythm.”
Jesus of Cool (1978)
Nowhere else did Nick Lowe ever create quite this strong of a platform for his impish, slightly deranged humor and preternatural pop savvy; this is the perfect manifestation of the young, mischievous Lowe, and a template for some of the most imaginative pop music of the subsequent years and decades. This is simply the funniest, catchiest, and most inventive his pop-about-pop ever got, and it includes much of his truly classic material: “Music for Money” offers a blunt-ended critique of the music biz riding atop a cheekily dumb rock guitar riff, while “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass” goes more abstract with one of his most inventive productions. “Tonight”– the lone moment of sincerity here– is as romantic and lovely as any ballad he ever recorded. “So it Goes” and “Shake and Pop” are two of his most insidious rockers, and his perverse sense of humor is manifest everywhere, but especially in the ironically tender “Little Hitler,” the outright weird “Marie Provost,” and in the oddball “Nutted by Reality,” which is all the more hilarious because of how perfectly it apes the sound of Paul McCartney. There’s also a ripping, live version of one of his best-loved songs– the punkish, propulsive “Heart of the City.”
Seconds of Pleasure (1980; as part of Rockpile)
Lowe’s greatest band began their career in true rock-and-roll fashion– by giving a giant middle finger to any and all industry and fan expectations. Before the release of their one and only studio album, Seconds of Pleasure, Rockpile has cultivated a massive reputation for their ferociously hard-rocking shows, so the expectation was that their debut record would be a rock and roll behemoth. Instead, Seconds of Pleasure is a pitch-perfect study in contrasts– specifically, between the quick-and-dirty spontaneity of Lowe and the immaculate pop precision of Dave Edmunds, one of the truly great rock partnerships that would give both men some of the best work of their career (and, admittedly, some of the worst, but only because their relationship eventually soured). But the Rockpile album is just perfect– a funny, sentimental, sometimes weird, traditionally-minded but forward-thinking monument to unpretentious, good-times, pre-Beatles rock. And it contains some of Nick Lowe’s very best songs; the sweet and tender “Heart” is here sung by guitarist Billy Bremner in what is the definitive version of the song (Lowe’s solo version is okay), “When I Write the Book” strikes a perfect balance of cleverness and heart, and “Play That Fast Thing (One More Time)” might be his best-ever rock song about rock songs.
The Impossible Bird (1994)
Though something of a transition for Lowe, this remains one of his most consistent and brilliant records– and arguably his most affecting. While many of his New Wave and pub rock peers continued to bang away like they were still kids in a garage band, Lowe instead chose to model what it means to age gracefully, turning to the fertile ground of American country, soul, and R&B music and playing down his goofball humor just a bit– but never sacrificing the warmth, humor, and pop savvy that has always made his music winsome. This one is, perhaps, a little more rooted in rock and roll than the albums that came after it, and a little more serious than the music that came before it: Actually, it has some of his most introspective material, including the quietly devastating, inward-focused “Beast in Me,” which Johnny Bash covered, and some truly wrenching lost-love songs like “Withered on the Vine” and “Where’s My Everything?” There’s also the bluesy kiss-off “12 Step Program (To Quit You Babe),” a clear sing that the Basher’s wit is still very much in tact, and “I Live on a Battlefield,” a perfect marriage of his newfound sense of introspection and his insidious hookiness.
At My Age (2007)
Lowe’s three most recent albums are very much of a piece– so much so that Lowe re-released them together just last year as a three-disc box set, affectionately dubbed the Brentford Trilogy. All three albums continue the move toward a more graceful and elegant blend of country and R&B that he began on The Impossible Bird, and though all three have their own subtle variations and are very much their own distinct things, I sometimes to have a tough time picking a favorite. Dig My Mood is the most torchy and melancholy of the bunch, and The Convincer is a late-night, fell-good seduction. At My Age, though, seems to me to be the one that best embodies what Lowe has accomplished with this magnificent three album run; it benefits from the warmest and most empathetic performances of the batch, all thanks to a loose and lived-in feel that’s generous with horns and cocktail pianos but never overdoes it. Most importantly, though, are the songs, which are funny and touching and sentimental in all the best ways: This is the album where you get to hear Lowe perform the song he wrote for Solomon Burke (“The Other Side of the Coin”), and it’s also got the irresistible anthem “People Change” and a pair of songs that are hilarious, but spiked with heartbreak– “The Club” and the mildly menacing “I Trained Her to Love Me,” surely two of his very best songs. The album almost feels like a big comeback– save for the fact that this is one artist who has never really needed one.