Speaking with the Washington Post around the time of his 1985 album The Rose of England, Nick Lowe didn’t mince words about where his sound came from. “The stuff I do,” he said, “is American roots music.”
That’s been the sound that the British singer/songwriter had been chasing since he emerged from the pub rock scene in the ‘70s as the front man for Brinsley Schwarz. What was “pub rock” really but ‘50s rock, hillbilly and R&B records with the volume and temperature cranked up? But along the way, Lowe was diverted and attracted the rise of punk (he produced the Damned’s 1977 debut) and new wave (he was also behind the mixing desk for Elvis Costello’s first five albums). So when it came time to produce his own records in the late ‘70s, he didn’t fully shake off the hard edges that he had helped his production clients hone.
As he transitioned into the ‘80s, Lowe started to more fully embrace his love of American roots music, resulting in arguably his most fertile creative period. It’s that stretch, from 1982 to 1990, that his label Yep Roc is focusing on as part of their ongoing reissue campaign of his discography. All available digitally (and coming out physically in spurts over the next couple of months), these albums—Nick The Knife, The Abominable Showman, Nick Lowe and his Country Outfit, The Rose Of England, Pinker and Prouder Than Previous, and Party of One—were a unified front against the rise and fall of various trends on both sides of the Atlantic. Combined, the songs within, either originals or covers, are a sustained twangy guitar riff matched with a pithy turn of lyrical phrase that, in spite of the somewhat sleek production choices and a song mocking Rick Astley, sound as fresh today as they did 30+ years ago.
It’s an unusual kind of consistency, especially considering what happened in Lowe’s life through these eight years. There was his marriage and divorce to Carlene Carter (the stepdaughter of Johnny Cash) and his decision to stop drinking. And as he rolled along, he kept up a steady schedule of live dates and production and studio work. Somehow he only manages a couple of small hiccups in an otherwise peerless run.
If there’s a need to point new listeners in a particular direction, my suggestion would be to start with the two albums he made as Nick Lowe and his Cowboy Outfit: their self-titled release from 1984 and The Rose of England, released one year later. Working with a steady backing band, which included keyboardist Paul Carrack and former Rumour guitarist Martin Belmont, and a singular vision to more firmly clutch his love of soul, rockabilly and early country music, did wonders for Lowe’s songwriting. Some of his finest work came out of this period like the romantic plea “I Can Be The One You Love,” the zydeco stomp and mocking gestures of “Half A Boy and Half A Man” and the horn-driven groove of “L.A.F.S.” Lowe also proved savvy in his choice of covers, which ranged from Elvis Costello’s powerful look at crumbling marriage (“Indoor Fireworks”) to what would have been considered by most to be throwaway country sides (Webb Pierce’s “Bo Bo Ska Diddle” and Joe Allison’s “Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young”) that he injects with verve and a thread of pathos.
The four albums that reside on either side of those two in the Lowe timeline, while all being great, represent a songwriter and musician in transition. The earlier pair—1982’s Nick The Knife and 1983’s The Abominable Showman—feel like Lowe’s attempts to start moving beyond the rougher and snottier sentiments of his first solo efforts. The shift didn’t come without some modern concessions like turning the rave up of “Heart,” which he recorded with Rockpile in 1980, into a crooning reggae ballad and the rather sophisti-pop leaning “Chicken and Feathers” and “How Do You Talk To An Angel” (both from Abominable). The rest of the albums, though, were filled with roots rock as filtered through the skinny tie sensibility that he used to turn Elvis Costello into a pop star and to land his own “Cruel To Be Kind” high in the Billboard Hot 100.
By the time he reached the end of the ‘80s, Lowe made efforts to further simplify his sound. Left to his own devices in the studio, as was the case on 1988’s Pinker and Prouder, he was direct and sharp. Working again with a gaggle of friends and likeminded colleagues, such as Fabulous Thunderbirds guitarist Jimmie Vaughan and Attractions drummer Pete Thomas, Lowe sticks to his strengths with love songs both cantankerous and heartfelt sharing the dance floor with choice covers from his buddies John Hiatt (the roiling “Love Gets Strange”) and Graham Parker (the rollicking “Black Lincoln Continental”).
Party Of One isn’t nearly as clean, thanks in no small part to ceding control of production to his Rockpile bandmate Dave Edmunds. “I tried to persuade him to let me cut it live,” Lowe told No Depression in 2001, “but he wouldn’t have it. So I had a little hiccup there.” The resulting record is still a heck of a lot of fun to listen to but you can hear it straining under the weight of buffed and polished studio work and the heavier hand brought to the material by drummer Jim Keltner, Edmunds, and guitarist Ry Cooder. Even the most lighthearted of tunes on here, like “Refrigerator White,” “Shting-Shtang” and “Gai-Gin Man,” feel demanding and leaden. They work better in the context of the whole album, but still stand out like bruises.
All the charms and occasional flaws of this fantastic run of recordings only comes clearer thanks to the fine remastering job done on all six albums. They all sound more present than ever. And half of these reissues are joined by some era-appropriate bonus material, like the wonderful demo versions of “Rocky Road” and “Don’t Think About Her” added to Party of One and long out-of-print live recording of Lowe’s signature anthem “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding” on Abominable. With their help, we get an even more detailed portrait of this one-of-a-kind songwriter and performer who revitalized the foundations of modern rock music.