In 1994 Nick Lowe appeared on BBC 2’s Later… with Jools Holland to promote his new album The Impossible Bird. Holland sat him down at the piano, ran through some questions, then rolled a clip of Lowe performing from nearly two decades before. For sixty seconds, Lowe stared at the screen. The man being interviewed by Holland was far removed from the one in the reel. He was now older, wiser, and wore a proper suit. His latest release, at age 45, was a large departure from his previous work. When the clip eventually ended Holland turned to Lowe and asked: “I reckon that sounded good, didn’t it?” With his eyes still fixated on the screen, Lowe could only reply, “What a little yob.”
Lowe’s career wasn’t exactly founded on playing ballads. On the contrary, he was a scruffy, angry young man who made pop music with a punk attitude and a country influence fueled by an English love for lager. After departing his first band (Brinsley Schwarz) for a solo career, he made a splash with his debut Jesus of Cool (1978). The record company felt that, given its controversial title and anti-commercial lyrics, the American release warranted censorship and a title change. Nevertheless, Pure Pop for Now People, as it came to be known stateside, garnered extremely favorable reviews. His next album Labour of Lust (1979) launched his smash hit “Cruel to be Kind.” By the 1980s, Lowe was a bona fide rock figure of note.
Over the next decade, Lowe stayed true to his roadhouse roots and steered clear of the synthesized pop that dominated the ‘80s. He also drifted in and out of various projects such as Rockpile with Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe’s Cowboy Outfit with Paul Carrack. By the end of the decade, however, Lowe was in decline. Perhaps his act had grown stale or his refusal to compromise had undermined commercial success. Regardless, between slow sales and a failing marriage, his career had plateaued. Still, Lowe felt jarringly optimistic. “Now I think I’m really starting to get good. I think I’ll be real great when I’m 60,” Lowe quipped on The Late Show in 1990.
After four years of isolation, he resurfaced with The Impossible Bird, an album that would mark a turning point. Out of the silence emerged a new Nick Lowe. His loose, shaggy wardrobe turned to refined suits. Brash lyrics gave way to solemn love songs. The high, raw energy was replaced by something infinitely more cordial, a polished product driven by a slower tempo. Lowe’s reincarnation was made manifest most remarkably in “The Beast In Me,” a slow, ominous ballad written for his former stepfather-in-law Johnny Cash. The song — designed to honor Cash’s vocals — instead helped shape Lowe’s new image as a warm balladeer. With a jazzier approach and a more reserved persona, Lowe was now moving to a different groove.
The “new” Lowe has become more solidified with each subsequent album. His repertoire has increasingly featured torch numbers, crooning ballads, and soulful, sentimental songs. Album titles like At My Age and The Old Magic register as symbolic statements more than casual labels. As Lowe himself told New York’s Daily News, “I didn’t want to become one of those thinning-haired, jowly old geezers who still does the same shtick they did when they were young, slim and beautiful.”
Much like fine wine, Lowe has improved with each passing year. His work of both past and present finds a welcome reception from the thriving contemporary independent and alternative music movement. As Lowe put it to Absolute Radio: “I’m enjoying a sort of Indian summer in my career.” Well, we’re enjoying it, too.
Photo Credit: Nick Lowe performs on stage at The Forum on October 4, 2014 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Gaelle Beri/Redferns via Getty Images)