Pinker and Prouder Than Previous (1988)
Okay, so this isn’t a horrible album. It’s just pretty listless and bland, two things you could rarely have accused Lowe of being before. Having abandoned the Cowboy Outfit, Lowe seemed unsure of what he was supposed to do next; Pinker has its share of the twangy, bottom-heavy roots rock that he explored on the Outfit albums, but it’s got all the form and little of the function — tracks like “I Got the Love” (download) and “Black Lincoln Continental” (download) try to groove, but never gather any momentum.
The thing is, on paper, this seems like it could have been Lowe’s best: Dave Edmunds was back as (part-time) producer, and the band included John Hiatt, Paul Carrack, Pete Thomas, Jimmie Vaughan, and the inimitable Geraint Watkins — but their performances are, to a man, unexceptional, like the songs. Of all Lowe’s out-of-print albums, Pinker is the most deserving of its fate — and yet, as I write this, the cheapest copy on Amazon is selling for around $25.
My point? Even bad Nick Lowe isn’t that bad. I hate Pinker and Prouder Than Previous, but only in comparison to what came before and after.
Party of One (1990)
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“I woke up one morning and it was like the clouds had parted,” Lowe told Rolling Stone after Party of One was released. “I felt like writing again.”
And write he did — if I’m not mistaken, Party is the only Nick Lowe album that doesn’t contain any cover songs. It’s true that this is a rather uneven set of tunes — for every “You Got the Look I Like” (download) or “What’s Shakin’ On The Hill” (download), there’s a half-baked trifle like “All Men Are Liars” (download) or “Honey Gun” (download) — but it’s got the sort of relaxed, loose-limbed spirit that renders such quibbles sort of academic.
This has a lot to do with Dave Edmunds’ sharp, sympathetic production, as well as the cast of characters assembled for the album: Party’s core band consisted of Lowe on bass, Jim Keltner on drums, Edmunds and Ry Cooder on guitar, and Paul Carrack on keys. Hardcore rock nerds will recognize this outfit as three-fourths of the crew that brought you John Hiatt’s Bring the Family album, and if Party doesn’t come near Family’s heights, it’s still a solid record, and a step in the right direction.
Speaking of that Bring the Family band — Lowe, Keltner, Hiatt, and Cooder — they decided to attempt a high-profile reunion after Party of One. Calling themselves Little Village, they lasted for only one album and one tour before going kaput. We didn’t take an in-depth look at Rockpile’s Seconds of Pleasure, so we sure aren’t going to spend much time on the inferior Little Village (of which Lowe has said, “It’s a shame we left behind this rather limp record, which got limper and limper as certain members of the group messed around with it”), but we will be making a stop out Little Village way on an upcoming Bootleg City. The record wasn’t much to write home about, but the tour was the stuff of legend (Lowe, in his understated British way, said “The last live shows we did were exquisite”).
The Impossible Bird (1994)
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In 1992, Curtis Stigers — an artist whose name means nothing to roughly everybody now, but at the time, was being aggressively promoted as the Next Big Thing by Arista Records — covered an old Nick Lowe tune, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?,” for the soundtrack to a little film called The Bodyguard. It went on to become the biggest-selling soundtrack of all time, putting a nice pile of coin in Lowe’s pocket in the process; when I saw him on his 1999 tour, he joked, “This song helped paint my house” before playing “Understanding.”
It isn’t a particularly profound story, I know. But I like it: Lowe had been dumped by Reprise Records after Little Village splintered, and — in the days before every Tom’s Harry Dick was declaring himself a record label and securing worldwide distribution via iTunes and Amazon — his options were relatively few in number. His earnings from The Bodyguard enabled him to record his next album, The Impossible Bird, on his own dime, and license it to whomever he damn well pleased; in this case, it was Upstart Records, a tiny, Rounder-distributed label whose other major signing was…um, Big Ass Truck.
Clearly, he’d lucked into a big pile of what the kids are calling “fuck you” money, and liberation agreed with him completely; Bird is arguably his best record. Freed from major-label constraints and beyond worrying about sales, Lowe turned in his most relaxed, confident, and mature album to that point. And though “mature” isn’t exactly what you’d think to expect from the man who wrote “Bay City Rollers, We Love You,” it really works. This is the sound, basically, of a man aging gracefully.
Honestly, there isn’t a bum number in the bunch, though some have grown in stature more than others through the years. Lowe’s former father-in-law, Johnny Cash, covered “The Beast in Me” (download) on his first American album, and Rod Stewart tipped his admittedly fading hat to “Shelley My Love” (download); other notable highlights include the Paul Carrack co-write “I Live on a Battlefield” and the brilliant “14 Days” — but as I said, you really can’t go wrong with this album.
Dig My Mood (1998)
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Call it The Impossible Bird, part II, but don’t go thinking it’s just a mindless rehash; though Dig My Mood shares its predecessor’s quiet, laid-back vibe, Lowe isn’t repeating himself, just crafting the sort of minimalist, casually wonderful records that you’d expect from a songwriter of his age (he was 49 when Mood came out) and stature.
In the comments to Part One of the Lowe Guide, some people mentioned a frustration with Lowe’s inability or unwillingness to really rock out, despite frequently hinting that he might; starting with the trilogy that began with Bird, that’s no longer a concern. When his songs do manage to kick up a little dust, it’s a very refined dust. For the most part, though, he’s content these days to live in the spaces between the beats — like on the stately, swinging “Time I Took A Holiday” (download) — or just abandon the beat altogether, as with “Faithless Lover” (download) and “Failed Christian” (download).
Personally, I prefer it when my albums work a little harder to gain my affection, but I’m not immune to Mood’s charms. When the chips are down, though, I turn to The Impossible Bird when I want to hear Lowe’s brand of parlor music.
The Convincer (2001)
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And this is where the story ends, at least for now. The Convincer sends the late-period trilogy Lowe started with The Impossible Bird into its third (and, one would guess, final) act. Where he goes from here is difficult to guess — though he’s made a career out of frequently shifting his musical focus, his latest direction makes for an extremely comfortable fit.
These songs might be hard to swallow for fans who wish he’d go back to more uptempo fare, but Lowe is well into his fifties now, and Mick Jagger he ain’t; he no longer plays many of his older songs in concert. He says a lot of them feel “callow” now, and even the ones that don’t come from a place he can’t identify with anymore. As I said about Bird, this is the sound of a man aging gracefully. More often than not, graybeard rockers either cope with their advancing mortality by completely ignoring it (a la Jagger) or totally abandoning their musical identity (a la Billy Joel). Lowe makes an, ahem, convincing case for the middle path.
He’s always been an iconoclast, and though it sounds a little funny in reference to the distinguished, grandfatherly-looking gentleman on The Convincer’s cover, an iconoclast he remains. Songs like “Homewrecker” (download) and “She’s Got Soul” (download) may not reach out and grab you as forcefully as “Cruel to Be Kind” or “Heart of the City,” but what they lack in immediacy, they make up in other ways.
As a brief side note, I hasten to add that you should also check out two releases we aren’t covering here: The live album Untouched Takeaway, released last year, which captures Lowe in truly fine form, and the boxed set, The Doings, which covers every album except The Convincer and includes a ton of live and previously unreleased tracks.