Feb 042009

Here’s a story that’s been told before, in one way or another, but it’s worth telling again.

The whole Pub Rock/Pure Pop for Now People Dream was running its course. Nick Lowe put out an album called Nick Lowe & His Cowboy Outfit. Nick assembled what, on paper, looked to be a band worthy of the legacy of Brinsley Schwarz and Rockpile. His Cowboy Outfit included Rumour guitarist Martin Belmont and Ace lead singer-turned-session man and super-sub Paul Carrack. Rockpile guitarist Billy Bremner even played on a couple of tracks!

My close personal friend, Townsman Andyr, bought the album when it came out. I had already been keeping my distance from Nick since a string of mediocre albums following the exquisite Labour of Lust and the energetic if not great Rockpile album, Seconds of Pleasure. There was too much music, new and old, to explore, and I didn’t need something called The Abominable Showman to bog me down. It was hard not to groan at the site of this new album with a new, desparately tongue-in-cheek title. Nick seemed to be following his worst impulses, going for the easy basket with, what, his 12th recorded version of “Half a Boy and Half a Man”?

Or maybe it just felt that way after countless remakes of “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock ‘n Roll)” and “Heart of the City.” Also, during these years when Nick was grasping at the gifts he once had in the palm of his hand, the tongue-in-cheek/hokey side of Lowe’s music was coming naturally to our old Philly music scene friend Ben Vaughn. Ben had been hitting on the charming side of Nick’s work without already having set us up with a view from the mountaintop (ie, with no songs as majestic and pure pop perfect as “Cruel to Be Kind” – no offense to Ben). That day Andy brought home the latest Nick Lowe album we gathered around Andy’s turntable and were duly unimpressed by Nick Lowe & His Cowboy Outfit. (Andy, did we see this outfit play live around the release of that album, or am I getting mixed up with that solo Costello/Lowe show we saw at the demi-Spectrum?)

For the next 6 years I stayed away from Nick’s releases, only dipping a toe back in Lowe waters with 1990’s decent Party of One. Finally, in 1998, Lowe released Dig My Mood, an album that saw him confronting down-to-earth adulthood and shucking almost all the schtick, which Huey Lewis had regrettably poisoned for all wiseass roots-pop guys in the ’80s. I’ve been told that the album right before that one, The Impossible Bird, was the first of Lowe’s low-key, all-business releases, but it just sounded boring the first couple of times another friend played it for me – and I haven’t heard it again since!

Anyhow, Dig My Mood has stuck with me. The two albums that followed, The Convincer and At My Age, have continued in this vein. I listen to those three albums as much as I listen to any albums released over the last 10 years. Nick’s grown up. He sounds comfortable in his own skin. He’s no longer in need of any sort of “outfit.” I listen to these albums and hope that I’m shucking any outfit I felt I needed to get through awkward, difficult, painful times. It’s a good feeling, and it’s a good feeling to know that I am ready to forgive Nick Lowe for His Cowboy Outfit.


  11 Responses to “I Am Ready to Forgive Nick Lowe for His Cowboy Outfit”

  1. Mr. Moderator

    Link to this thread corrected – thanks for pointing out the mistake, BigSteve. Comment on!

  2. diskojoe

    I remember The Cowboy Outfit album to be somewhat of a return to form after his previous album (the one that had “Raging Eyes”, the sole good song). Anyway, a very good & perceptive article Mr. Mod. I stopped buying or listening to Elvis Costello, but I’m still listening to Basher.

    In light of your comments about Nick, do you think we can call him the English Charlie Rich?

  3. Yes – we saw NL & his Cowboy Outfit at the Spectrum opening up for Elvis C & The Atractions in support of “Goodbye Cruel World”

    Horrible, horrible album but the concert was much better than I expected.

  4. BigSteve

    First, the song in the first video, Wish You Were Here, as well as the song he tells Dick Clark he’s going to sing next, Ragin’ Eyes, were from The Abominable Showman, the album before & His Cowboy Outfit, and the album I think of as the nadir of his recording career.

    I really like a lot of the material from the period the Mod is denigrating. Rose of England and Pinker & Prouder especially have lots of great stuff on them. They’re not as good as Nick the Knife, but what is? You can feel the mood changing slightly on Party of One and Little Village, and then the amazing late career renaissance sets in with The Impossible Bird. I’ve got to say that that renaissance probably could not have happened if he hadn’t kept plugging away at it, trying to find a way up and out, during the period the Mod hates.

    Lowe was on Austin City Limits just last week, doing the solo ‘just me and my guitar’ thing. In the little snippet of an interview they show after after the performance, he was talking about maturing as an artist, and he said the key for him was that he had always liked old man music and felt that his musical influences had always been pointing him in this direction. This hit home for me, because throughout my life people have always said that I was like an old man even when I was much younger. My mother’s nickname for me was Grandpa. So I guess I was ready for Lowe’s kind of grandpa music.

    The weird thing, though, is that during the period when Lowe was supposedly at the top of his game, his lyrical point of view was pretty adolescent. So I think it was a matter of his lyrical persona finally catching up with his musical maturity, which was there all along.

  5. Mr. Moderator

    I don’t “hate” that period, BigSteve; I found it sad and beneath Lowe. And boring and unnecessary. There were plenty of mediocre artists capable of doing what he was doing at that point…in my opinion. It’s a little different than “hate.”

  6. BigSteve

    Ok, Andy said “horrible, horrible,” but I shouldn’t attribute that to you.

    My question is, what did you want him to do back then? We can see his career trajectory now and realize that he was treading water in his mid 30s. But at the time you probably wanted him to be more like he was before, right?

    Lowe turns 60 next month, and he obviously could not have written the songs he’s writing now when he was 35. But I don’t think his audience back then was any more ready for maturity than he was.

    It’s weird that 35 would be a tougher age for a rocker than 55. I’d say Springsteen’s and Dylan’s career trajectories are very similar. The only thing is, very, very few people in their shoes have a late career flowering like that.

  7. I guess Westerberg is my equivalent. I forgive him his first three solo albums (most of which have their moments) because they made way for stuff like Stereo/Mono.

    Also, I’ve been trying to collect more Nick Cave albums, which is hard because he’s got so many of ’em. Anyway, from what I can discern from websites, message boards and my own collection, he hit a bit of creative slump between 1996 (age 39) and 2003 (age 46). Then he came back in a pretty big way the following year with the Abattoir Blues double album. Now he’s almost 52, and making great stuff, and even increasing his audience in the States. Pretty cool.

    I am trying to think of albums by artists I like that made me mad. There’s that one Aimee Mann concept album about the boxer; a certain Elvis Costello album from this decade. At the same time, I think artists should be allowed to fail without acting like it’s a crime against humanity, (Not that I’m saying that’s what this post is about, Mr. Mod.)

  8. Mr. Moderator

    BigSteve wrote:

    My question is, what did you want him to do back then?

    Avoid the ’80s, for one thing. His albums started sounding as bland as Squeeze albums post-the one I really like, the one Costello produced (with “Tempted”) and the name of which I’m blanking on. I’d rather Lowe had pushed things sonically and failed now and then, as Costello was doing in the latter half of the ’80s, rather than crank out misguided attempts at cracking the Top 40. That’s all. Had he stayed true to making MUSIC rather than RECORDS/PRODUCT he may have been more interesting while finding his way back. That’s what I liked about that Party of One album. It was the first in years, for me, that sounded like humans playing together because they wanted to make sounds.

  9. dbuskirk

    I don’t have the time to mount a full-on defense at the moment, but there’s a lot to enjoy about the eighties period you’re dogging. They’re a bit uneven but I enjoy listening to Lowe the interpreter, doing all the rock novelty stuff as well as dead-on version of “She Ain’t Got Nobody” and “Indoor Fireworks”. He’s coasting a bit until PARTY OF ONE but he’s was a crafty enough performer to sustain huimself until inspiration hits him again.

    That said, his last two records sound to me like he’s stuck in a rut again. It’s all getting too predictable and tasteful for me.

  10. Mr. Moderator

    You know, db, when I first got At My Age I was thinking the same thing – and in a way it’s still true. However, I think he’s in a phase when he’s all about making the sounds and performing to reach a certain vibe. I don’t know that he’s really “challenging” himself, and maybe this has always been a limitation of Lowe’s. Given the choice of Classy Huey Lewis Wiseacre vs Classy Gentleman Interpreter, I’ll choose the latter. At least I get to enjoy the sounds he’s making without getting as distracted by all the trimmings of those ’80s productions.

  11. mikeydread

    Dig My Mood. Timeless.

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