A History of Alternative Music One Album at a Time: 1977-2001: Album 2-25: “Jesus of Cool” by Nick Lowe (1978)
Didn’t know much of anything about Nick Lowe going in. I knew he was a mentor to Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson and Graham Parsons, a leading figure of Power Pop and New Wave and he who gave us the song “Cruel to Be Kind.” Beyond that, I get him confused with Nick Cave about 7 times out of 8.
“Jesus of Cool” is Mr. Lowe (not Mr. Cave’s) debut album, 21 tracks strong. Every song is a complete idea, almost horologically well built. Mr. Cave was coming up on 30 when this album came out so we cannot extol him as a prodigy but rather someone who worked at and worked at it again, until he had something he thought was not only right but different.
The “different” is that most of this record is attitude–sly, winking, conspiratorial, joking. All of this was in pretty short supply at this time where you if you fashioned yourself a singer/songwriter AND wanted to be funny, you either had to come from a folk tradition (see Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tom Lehrer) or be the ringmaster and main attraction of a traveling circus (see David Bowie and Alice Cooper), a guy with a guitar or a guy at the center of a spectacle (women are rarely allowed to be funny in music. Which is gross, plain and simple). Perhaps Nick Lowe’s greatest achievement was the middle ground, a wit, even one as dry as pavement at high noon, without a bunch of theatrics or politics for ballast. Just funny for funny’s sake.
The problem is that Nick Lowe, at least at this very early stage of being NICK LOWE was funny all the time and emotionally tuned in for about half that. Too much of the opening of this record is clever instead of present as if Mr. Lowe thought we wouldn’t get the joke if he let his band actually play instead of hold back. And despite the mission statement here, this is exactly the wrong place to put the airless hip stuff. It makes you want to quit on the record before it’s even really begun.
Don’t though. By “Shake and Pop” (Track #4), Lowe finds it. Songs rock out almost like metal numbers and at least one is a blues durge as guttural as a Leadbelly cut. All are completely self-assured without being cocky and unwilling to commit, emotionally speaking. By Track #4 Nick Lowe is acting like an adult musician with a bratty sense of humor instead of a clever brat with fake detachment from his own creation.
At 21 songs, the back half of the record is erratic. He doesn’t make the cute-rather-than-true mistake again but not every song can be “Cruel to Be Kind” or the dopey glee of “Rollers Show” (about yes, going to a Bay City Rollers concert) and the slow boil feminist anger of “Born a Woman.”
I am sure Nick Lowe grew and matured. He’s in his early 7os now and 15 albums into a career. But really it strikes me that his greatest influence will be his descendants, Costello and Jackson and the list of musicians they influence we could reel off until we passed out from lack of oxygen.
Would I try more Nick Lowe? Sure. Despite what I just said, I already like him more than Elvis Costello and as much as Joe Jackson. In the case of Joe Jackson, that’s quite a bit.
“Cruel to Be Kind”
“Nutted by Reality”
“Halfway to Paradise”
“Music for Money”
“I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass”
Up Next: “The Specials” by “The Specials”