A new Lowe

When the song comes out of the speakers, for the first time or the 500th, it seems almost too perfect: Johnny Cash, his voice a beautifully rotten croak that falls somewhere between singing and speaking, tells of the monster trapped within him--the monster that makes him who he is, a beast of his own creation over which he has no power. It's a monster, Cash gargles, that is "restless by day and by night," that "rants and rages at the stars," that "has learned to live with pain." Finally, in a tone that suggests submission rather than sympathy, Cash can only say, "God help the beast in me."

When Cash sings these words, he not only does so with all his baggage in hand, but with the contents spilled upon the floor. Without "The Beast in Me," American Recordings is a great album, the best of last year's releases and one of the finest of Cash's estimable career. But with it, American Recordings is a masterpiece, the history of American music--the religious hoodoo of the blues, the staggering remorse of country, the overpowering strength of rock and roll--set forth at the feet of the listener. To hear Cash perform that song is to understand what it means to do evil, to inflict pain, without a drop of remorse.

But the words are not the creation of Johnny Cash; rather, he merely interpreted them from the printed page upon which they were penned by another man. They actually belong to Nick Lowe, a man who has made a reputable (and, just recently, a whoppingly profitable) career hiding such raw thoughts and emotions underneath sarcasm, wit, puns, jokes, asides, and other literary devices that soften blows and couch criticism. For more than two decades, Lowe has written of roadies who lose arms and of actresses killed by dogs and of hippies looking for a little peace and love and understanding, and always, each song was surrounded by the quotation marks of irony.

But Nick Lowe is now a different man. With the recent demise of a serious relationship and the "housecleaning" that followed, the 45-year-old Lowe has decided one can only hide behind clever words for so long before one has to make the decision to commit to the fight or bow out. And so, on the newly released The Impossible Bird, Lowe goes all the way--revealing a man who knows what it is to feel pain, who begs his lover to stay as the door closes behind her, who has grown weary of finding each relationship withered on the vine. When he equates love with a battlefield, Lowe does so with the intimacy and immediacy of a survivor instead of with the distance of a casual observer. For the old Lowe, it would have been a witty metaphor; for the new Lowe, it's a tale told from the front lines.

"I'm 45 now, and I think that anyone that's got to the age of 45 and they haven't had a few brushes with life and the world in general, then they've probably been in sheltered accommodations or have been doing well," Lowe says from his home in England. "And so, I find that, now, I have to sing about stuff that I know about. And so I aspire to write songs that are rugged, that you can sing under any circumstances, really. And it takes time. It's hard to write them. At least, I think it's harder than writing a Yes track. I think Yes music is a lot easier than the stuff that I do."

Perhaps the best place to begin is with Lowe's own version of "The Beast in Me," performed in an atmosphere almost as stark as Cash's, but with one great difference. Where Cash seems to embrace his demons, Lowe struggles to reconcile his. Lowe began writing the song 15 years ago for his one-time stepfather-in-law but could never finish it; it finally took the recent end of Lowe's relationship with an English TV anchorwoman to jar loose the remaining pieces of the puzzle, to force him to realize that though he began writing the song for the Man in Black, it wasn't really about Cash at all. Rather, it was about Nick Lowe--for better or worse.

"Both of the versions are very bare bones," Lowe says of the song, which he did not know Cash was going to record till American Recordings was already in stores last spring. "John's is absolutely very bare bones, and mine is one breath all painted in. And I think I've got more sympathy for my beast. It seems that I sort of like it, whereas John is interpreting it as this real problem that he's got--this beast in him. Whereas for my beast, I feel rather, sort of, well-disposed or pitying towards it. I kind of like it."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky