YepRoc has been working the NICK LOWE discography for some time now. Starting out with Labour of Lust, Pure Pop for Now People (Jesus of Cool) and the Rockpile-attributed Seconds of Pleasure, plus a best-of (Quiet Please) and a handful of new releases, the label finishes things off with the final six albums Lowe put out before he went independent in the mid ’90s.
Granted, the half dozen releases here are among Lowe’s least successful, but that concept is only relative when you consider what Nick has knocked out in his career. His first couple of releases after his band Brinsley Schwarz called it a day – Pure Pop and Labour – have stood the test of time as power pop classics. But Lowe was never interested in being the torchbearer for that genre. So on his further releases he slowly but surely expanded his reach by tackling a wider range of pop flavors, including rockabilly, straight country, country-politan and more.
1982’s Nick the Knife cut closest to the Pure Pop/Labour one-two punch, with “Stick It Where the Sun Don’t Shine,” “Burning” and the reggae-tinged remake of his tune “Heart,” flanked by most of Rockpile (who made the original “Heart”). A year later Lowe had put together the band that would support him on the next few records, releasing The Abominable Showman (excellent title!) and scoring artistically with “Raging Eyes” – in his typical time-tested vein – but moving along into greener pastures with “Time Wounds All Heels” and the sublime sounding/lengthily titled “(For Every Woman Who Ever Made a Fool of a Man There’s a Woman Made A) Man of a Fool.”
Without a hit or hint at the Top 40 since “Cruel to Be Kind,” Nick’s label was leaning on him to come up with something chart-worthy. He gave them 1984’s Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit, a cleverly-titled (though too clever for its own good) album with a surefire single, “Half a Boy and Half a Man,” which went nowhere fast. Despite a likely successful cover of The Springfields’ “Breakaway” and Mickey Jupp’s kick-ass “You’ll Never Get Me Up (In One of Those),” a worthy successor to “Switchboard Susan” (from Labour of Lust), Cowboy Outfit mostly stayed confined to the closet. Too bad, too, because Lowe penned some great album cuts (“Awesome,” “The Gee and the Rick and the Three-Card Trick”) that really showcased some of his untrumpeted strengths.
1985’s The Rose of England seemed to have the panacea to Lowe’s lack of chart time despite its boring cover art. (The US version featured a high school artist drawing/collage that was actually worse than the all-type treatment used in the UK.) The remake of Nick’s own “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock ’N’ Roll)” was produced by then-chart topping Huey Lewis and played by him and The News. A catchy tune that was already great before Lewis helmed its second coming, it still didn’t have that certain-something to bother the charts. Neither did the excellent reading of John Hiatt’s “She Don’t Love Nobody,” the rockabilly killer “7 Nights to Rock” or even Nick’s “The Rose of England.” Still… nothing.
A few years later, after taking a breather presumably to have a rethink, 1998 saw the release of Pinker and Prouder Than Previous. A peculiarly-titled little troublemaker, it had some likely candidates for stardom, such as Lowe’s “Lovers Jamboree” and the fun take on Wynn Stewart’s “Big Big Love,” but nothing that actually made a stab at bringing Nick something other than a consolation prize.
His US label, Columbia, decided they’d had enough and Mr. Lowe moved on to Reprise for 1990’s Party of One, arguably his best album since Nick the Knife. But even with quintessential all-time Lowes like “(I’m Gonna Build A) Jumbo Ark” and “All Men Are Liars” (which contains the clever couplet “Do you remember Rick Astley?/He had a big fat hit, it was ghastly”), as well as the more mature but just as good “What’s Shakin’ 0n the Hill” and “I Don’t Know Why You Keep Me On,” this party was a bust.
What was it going to take to bring Nick the kudos that seemed to be his for the taking? Whitney Houston’s The Bodyguard movie, whose 1992 soundtrack featured a cover of Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” though the song’s author’s name was probably completely unknown to those who saw the movie and bought the soundtrack album. Perhaps it was the success – and royalty checks – from this project that helped Lowe to figure out what he wanted to do next.
Not content to age disgracefully, Nick embraced a personal path without the pressure to write what the label thinks will be a hit (I mean, were they ever right in the past?). Lowe’s albums since 1990 have been much more relaxed affairs, with the kinds of songs (originals and covers) that better reflect his life and role as one of new wave’s elder statesmen. You still get the humor, just not the sophomoric kind. It’s definitely a double-edged sword, though, for those of us who came aboard because of his association with the punk/wave scene and thanks to songs like “Cruel to Be Kind” or “Crackin’ Up” have found the ensuing releases to lack the spunk of the early albums. And even though we may have the self awareness to realize that those who don’t mature are doomed to come off as perennial punchlines, we can’t help but listen to the early records and wish our hero’s future releases had continued in the same vein.
YepRoc should be commended for taking the torch and keeping it lit. Though the packages themselves are devoid of any frills (no lyrics, inserts or anything like that, at least in the CD configuration), they have added bonus track rarities such as demos and live versions from B-sides and elsewhere, when applicable. The CDs feature these items on the single disc; vinyl buyers get them on an included bonus 7″. Applause! And – if you bought all six albums during the pre-order period – you get a Nick Lowe lunchbox. Sure, there’s no thermos included, but you’re probably not taking this thing to school anyway. Unless you’re one of those who refused to grow up and still wish there was a “Switchboard Susan” on every Lowe LP.
3.5/5 (entire series) (YepRoc, 2017)