Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Arbiter of Taste

Nick Lowe - Jesus of Cool (1978, Reissued by Proper 2008)

I’ve felt for a while that Nick Lowe is one of the most underrated and unfairly marginalised of the great British songwriters. Even now, most people know him only through the Brinsley Schwartz hit ‘Cruel To Be Kind’ or through Elvis Costello’s version of ‘(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding’. Recently, with a suave and sophisticated grey demeanour, he has reinvented himself superbly as a light country soul singer in the mould of Dan Penn. His early solo material was far from this though – and indeed, with his estuary vowels a little more pronounced – even his voice sounds somewhat unrecognisable from his recent works.

Now lavishly repackaged by Proper, ‘Jesus of Cool’ looks set to gain a thoroughly deserved reappraisal. The title now seems loaded with irony – in the intervening period since the album’s original release, Lowe has been many things, but never really hip or cool, and the cover images now look purely goofy. Yet the title came from a genuine piece of writing in Sounds from Tim Lott that described Lowe as ‘a bona fide Jesus of Cool!’ The US title, presumably aimed at avoiding offending sensitive Christians, was ‘Pure Pop For Now People’, a cloying piece of industry-speak which sounds exactly like the target of songs such as ‘Music for Money’ or ‘Shake and Pop’.

Indeed, the album’s presiding theme is the dispensability and disposability of pop music culture, a state of affairs that arguably hasn’t changed much since 1978. Lowe’s snide and cynical verbal assaults have probably diminished in impact a little over time, but there’s still a lot of fun to be had in the savage barroom boogie of ‘Shake and Pop’ or the deceptively smooth ‘Little Hitler’.

Wheareas Lowe’s recent excursions into country soul have explored a consistent and sedate sound model, much of ‘Jesus of Cool’ feels like irony-laden genre experimentation. It suggests that Lowe has as much in common with irreverent contemporary songwriters such as Stephin Merritt as with the classicists with whom he is more frequently compared. Where the enthralling ‘Tonight’ sounds like a youthful precursor to his brilliant ‘Let’s Stay In And Make Love’, a laid-back and beautifully private love song (‘tonight we’re just a boy and girl/the only ones in the world’), ‘So It Goes’ has jaunty phrasing that resembles Thin Lizzy’s ‘The Boys are Back in Town’. On the minor hit ‘I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass’, Lowe sounds like a quirky Bowie enthusiast, the jerky rhythm of the song bolstering its insistence. On ‘No Reason’, he even veers into Ska territory.

This gameful flitting about from style to style works chiefly because Lowe is a master of simple, infectious melody, and because he is a biting, intelligent lyricist. It also works because a handful of the songs (the wiry funk of ‘Nutted By Reality’, ‘…Breaking Glass’ and ’36 Inches High’ particularly) are genuine oddities, with unconventional arrangements and a producer’s attention to detail. The album seems to present Lowe as an avid collector and digester of a range of music, which he then re-assembles to suit his own purposes.

This handsome reissue comes in superbly designed packaging, with informative sleevenotes and a whole host of excellent bonus tracks (solo recordings from the ‘widerness’ period between the demise of Brinsley Schwartz and the arrival of this album). Most apposite is the wonderful ‘I Love My Label’, another compelling dissection of music industry culture. There’s also a highly enjoyable, high speed take on ‘Cruel To Be Kind’ and a furiously energetic ‘Heart of the City’. It’s all value for money, I’d say.

1 comment:

Holly A Hughes said...

I agree, it's baffling why Nick Lowe should be such a well-kept secret. As you suggest, that very versatility of his made his style too hard to categorize; the general audience never could quite figure out where Nick was coming from. But that's why he still sounds fresh after all these years! The re-issue is great -- here's hoping it will win him the respect he never got 30 years ago.