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And his runs at new ways of approaching rock music--that very perspective that's kept him from becoming a cartoon parody of What I Once Was--have unfolded slowly, quietly. While Michael Jackson and Van Halen and Duran Duran climaxed and then nose-dived in front of the whole world, the 1980s nudged Lowe's career along in uneven fits and starts: He produced records by John Hiatt, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Paul Carrack, and his then-new-now-ex-wife Carlene Carter (stepdaughter of Johnny Cash), among others. He paced himself on releasing four of his own albums, offering up a fascinating single here and there--"Ragin' Eyes," "Rose of England," "Half a Boy and Half a Man"--and backing his efforts with sporadic touring. This may have kept him on critics' and musicians' best-of lists, but commercial regard stayed to more accessible roads.
The inconsistent, long-wearing '80s granted Lowe personal growth without burn-out; he avoided music videos ("They just cost so much, and the few I made were miserable experiences.") and money-grubbing nostalgia tours; without cynicism, he lost interest in the trappings of fame. Nonetheless, by 1990, upon the release of his Party of One album, his insider reputation as one of rock's most consistent and compelling pop craftsmen had won him a respectable seat in the hall of great singer-songwriters--Lennon and McCartney, Ray Davies, Paul Weller, David Bowie, Elton John, and certainly Lowe's longtime buddy Elvis Costello. That his last two records are his best in years only support this understated truth.
(Accordingly, Lowe was asked to be the keynote speaker of the overwhelming, overhyped South By Southwest music conference in Austin last March, which he accepted with bemused grace. "I understand I was the first English person to do it," he states drolly, "though I still don't know what 'keynote' means, and nobody I asked could answer that question. So I just got up there and opened my mouth.")
He tackles his tours with the same patience and good humor, and admits that his approach to live shows has changed considerably over the years. "In the past, [we] had the alcohol and stimulants; we'd spend all day in the bars and such, then get up on stage that night and just carry that mood over. But I can't do that anymore. I'm quite reclusive in my daily life, and on the road, I'm always certain I'm racked with some affliction or terrible disease," he laughs. "Some rare Panamanian condition--I'm absolutely neurotic. But it's very important to get up in front of people, to see the whites of their eyes. It's fueling, and these days I can't just spend all day lolling about in a bar and then take the stage. I want the show to be personal, conversational."
He trusts his backing band implicitly (keyboardist Geraint Watkins, drummer Robert Treherne, and guitarist Steve Donnelly have been with Lowe since The Impossible Bird), and the still-lean-and-angular frontman, with his shock of thick white hair, lets a live show take whatever organic shape it must--sometimes forgoing bass, adding an extra guitar, paring things down or thickening things up--to find the evening's mood.
While pop music re-invents itself every few years, it refuses to grow up. Its pioneers don't have that luxury. The relaxed dignity of Lowe's persona and the songs on Dig My Mood are anomalies in the crush of established artists who just don't get it anymore; while Lowe keeps enough distance from the game to have a clear view and see the big picture, others go blind with greed and complacency. From Billy Joel to Sting, Bowie to McCartney, it's as though these performers forgot the very thing that put them front and center in the first place: an uncompromising edge, an attack on audience expectations in the building of artistic backbone. They've become has-beens or easy-listening poster kids way before they had to; far be it from them to take risks, challenge their fans, or reach deep enough inside themselves to find that original pulse.
Dig My Mood isn't rock and roll, per se, but it's very concerned with that pulse--the pulse of its artist and the origin of rock itself, which ironically (and irony is Lowe's forte) makes Lowe a far worthier Rock Star than his more famous counterparts. But that was the trap, the very shiny trap, that Lowe spotted and sidestepped long ago, and thank God for it.
Nick Lowe performs June 13 at Deep Ellum Live.