Nick Lowe: “Labour of Lust”
As mentioned before, Nick Lowe’s classic second solo album, Labour of Lust got a long-overdue CD re-issue last week; I couldn’t resist getting a copy, of course, and after playing it through a couple of times I found myself strangely compelled by the idea of creating a sort of “Vintage Lowe” playlist on my iPod– kind of an idealized spin on what a Nick Lowe setlist might have looked like in the fall of 1979, perhaps at a hypothetical pub somewhere. The material, of course, is pretty much split between Labour and the album that came before it, Jesus of Cool, with a couple of B-sides from the era and a Rockpile song or two thrown in for good measure. And listening to the Labour of Lust content in that context, I’m struck by a couple of things: One, it’s probably an ever-so-slightly lesser album than either Jesus of Cool or the lone Rockpile album. But two, it seems, oddly, like a sort of blueprint to Lowe’s entire career, an insight into the music that came before and after it.
First thing’s first though: I have to say that, purely in terms of a CD re-issue, this project is merely passable. There is a set of liner notes that provides a basic historical framework, but little else. The artwork is fine, but unremarkable. And there is only one bonus song here, “Basing Street,” which is a B-side that many Lowe fans probably have anyway. That said, the Yep Roc edition also rights the wrongs committed by the split US/UK releases– the former left off the song “Endless Grey Ribbon,” the latter cut “American Squirm,” but both songs are finally together here. And really, the mere fact that this fantastic record– so long out of print– is readily available once more is reason enough to celebrate it.
As for the music itself: Though this album only has Lowe’s name on the cover, it’s worth noting that it is, essentially, a Rockpile album; personnel-wise, there are no differences between this and Seconds of Pleasure. And yet… it feels every bit the Nick Lowe solo vehicle that Jesus of Cool is, and indeed, most of these songs can be easily imagined as tracks on that album. The differences are largely in subject matter– Jesus of Cool was mostly rock about rock, while this one mostly moves on from the inside-jokey meta-pop references– and production: Jesus of Cool was all about bright colors and pure pop invention, things that are much less prevalent on Labour outside of the weird, druggy “Big Kick, Plain Scrap!” Instead, this album is a lean, rough-around-the-edges bar band performance– namely, Rockpile.
And it’s interesting to consider it in that context. This may be a Rockpile album in all but name, but it’s a very different critter than Seconds of Pleasure; since this is Nick’s show, there’s a much greater emphasis on his off-the-cuff rock sensibilities and less of Dave Edmunds’ more precise pop classicism, but there is also material here that Seconds doesn’t really hint at– like the pure country of “Without Love,” for instance. Also on deck here: One of my favorite lean, muscular Rockpile performances, the outsider swagger of “Born Fighter.”
That said, Labours of Lust also hints at the more country- and roots-based idioms Lowe would go on to explore for basically the rest of his career, and yes, even albums as seemingly different from those first two records as The Impossible Bird and At My Age. Indeed, pure pop classics like “Cruel to be Kind” and “American Squirm” aside, there’s plenty of material here that sounds to me like it basically could have fit on any of the four most recent Lowe albums– a slightly slowed-down version of “Without Love” might have been a highlight of any of those albums. The songwriting itself suggests a move away from the goofy weirdness of, say, “Marie Provost” or “Nutted by Reality” in favor of something a little more subtle and wry; certainly, the wordplay of “Dose of You” would have made a fine addition to, say, Dig My Mood, and “Love so Fine” is old-timey fun that would have been perfect on At My Age.
Add to all this the fact that Labour of Lust displays Lowe’s typical knack for picking the absolute perfect cover songs– an area in which he is truly peerless; on this album, it’s his definitive reading of “Switchboard Susan,” done with just the right level of bawdy glee– and you have what is, I think, a pretty essential Nick Lowe album, even if it is somewhat unfortunately stuck between two flat-out classics.