Labour of love

Nick Lowe, still the Jesus of Cool, ages gracefully-- and gratefully

That Nick Lowe has ducked the big, bright spotlight of Rock Stardom is a longstanding mystery of pop music. That he's also managed to enter his fourth decade as one of rock's most respected songwriter-producers with so much grace and wisdom is no mystery at all; he's a clever one, and figured out long ago that rock and roll's obsession with youth and novelty doesn't leave much room for a veteran, unless that veteran outsmarts it.

The redeeming generosity of rock and roll is in the way it encourages its own practitioners to break or even ignore the rules, and as popular music trips toward the next millennium and young musicians stake out new sonic territory, Lowe has created a unique space for himself by carving away at rock's roots with his own brilliantly sharp knife--a process that's driven him forward since the early '70s. He has served pivotal terms throughout: as a wunderkind of pub rock with his band Brinsley Schwarz, as the favorite uncle of punk while co-founding Stiff Records, and as the genuine godfather of new wave not only as a solo artist, but also the wily producer of Elvis Costello's and Graham Parker's early work. Nowadays he's simply Nick Lowe, fucking great songwriter--and he likes it that way. If only the rest of the rock world knew how to credit him...

"I've worked toward a career that doesn't require my presence," Lowe says, on the phone from his London home. "I'm not interested in being highly visible. I don't even bother with a huge part of the industry anymore. As far as I'm concerned, they may as well be selling shoes, or maybe I'm selling shoes to them. We can't help each other much."

This sentiment could sound bitter from the mouth of any other performer, but Lowe remains breezy and cheerful, like an immune citizen who finds his corrupt government mildly amusing. In fact, Lowe never takes a sour tone when discussing his career--its uneven past and its respectably obscure present--and it doesn't take long to realize that his astoundingly clear perspective is nearly as powerful as his musical insight.

That clear head and talent are in full cooperation on his latest record, Dig My Mood, which he's supporting with a compact tour of the U.S. this week and next. The follow-up to his introspective 1994 release The Impossible Bird, this new album extends a phase that has won Lowe some of the strongest praise of his career, and proves that rather than fading or slowing, he's only growing sharper.

"I've had to use getting old as an asset, rather than let it become a problem," he says, laughing. "I'm nearly 50, and I simply can't play that loud and fast anymore, and I don't even like to go see anybody else do it. When an older performer tries to hang on to that, it's unseemly. And while I've never taken myself seriously, I've always taken what I do very seriously."

His serious-but-not leanings permeate Dig My Mood, or at least set the record's spare, moody boundaries; while the album honors the constructs of old-school jazz, country, Motown, Stax, and even roots rock, it's injected with sporadic hints of Lowe's self-effacing wit and his droll homage to the purveyors--Johnny Cash, Marvin Gaye, Cole Porter, Bob Dylan. For Lowe himself, the late '70s claimed him as a burgeoning pop craftsman--one who employed plenty of rattling guitar and frenetic drumming and prankish lyrics--but he has since become a master songwriter who now takes his pop with a dose of subtlety. The raw American bent of nearly every song on the record--from the torchy beauty of "You Inspire Me" to the slide guitar of "Failed Christian"--has its edges smoothed by a thoughtful Englishman who nails the genres, or the essence of them, better than most American songwriters could ever hope to.

"I've always liked the way the English do American music," he says. "Ever since the Beatles and the Stones started covering blues and such--rock is really just R&B and country, anyway. The American accent is the standard for rock music. And for a boy from West London, that was the Holy Grail, that's how you started getting into it."

Indeed, Lowe spent his earliest music days as the bassist-vocalist in a harmony-pop group called Kippington Lodge, which recorded songs on the beat-happy Parlophone label, no less. By 1969 he would outgrow such eager mimicry. "In learning, you try to cram your songs into one style or another, and come up with wretched individual songs," he says. "Then you start making new connections between them--this mishmash of ideas--and you find a personal style. It sounds a bit pretentious or something, I know, but the songs start writing themselves."

Dig My Mood carries a spontaneity that comes with such confidence and experience. Loose, spare, assured but never smug, it sounds as though it were recorded in one spectacular day--a day blessed with that intangible voodoo that pervades rock's best recordings. Any potential fat or filler has been trimmed away, leaving a lean, rangy animal. Surprise, surprise--it took Lowe and his band a full year to capture that quality.

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