The problem with high expectations can be that anything less than meeting them feels like a disappointment. That's a phenomenon that has hounded British singer-songwriter and alternative pop roots rocker Nick Lowe from his earliest pub rock efforts of the early '70s. Nonetheless, the Brinsley Schwarz and Rockpile pub rock veteran has always managed to rise above a pop music world not quite ready to embrace him and produce consistently exploratory if not highly significant music. Active especially during the early '80s, Lowe cemented his legend status through many memorable songs such as these.
Though not strictly an '80s tune, both by virtue of its appearance on Lowe's 1979 album, Labour of Lust, as well as its impressive No. 12 peak on the pop charts that same year, the often-played, well-loved "Cruel to Be Kind" will probably be one of those songs that never loses its subversive pop luster, no matter how many artists cover it. This just happens to be a piece of music that, from its individual parts to the synergy of its collective whole, possesses the almost effortless ability to dazzle listeners of all musical stripes. A charging guitar pop anthem, the track boasts Lowe's wry and original romantic sensibility as well as his gift for post-punk melodicism, a trait shared with the admirable likes of Cheap Trick and Squeeze.
Making its first appearance on Rockpile's only official studio release, 1980's Seconds of Pleasure, this tune achieves a similarly transcendent height because of a symbiotic relationship between top-notch songwriting and exemplary band performance. Perhaps because of unfocused marketing or the inherent difficulty of categorizing Lowe and the first-class band with which he performed during this period, this track has wallowed in years of obscurity. It's certainly not the only example of quality music going relatively unheard by contemporary audiences who would probably much appreciate it, but it does constitute a sincerely irritating instance of that particular phenomenon.
3. "Queen of Sheba"
None of the tracks from 1982's Nick the Knife has become pop/rock or even '80s music staples. But this is Nick Lowe we're talking about, a bona fide cross-genre singer-songwriter and man out of time (along with frequent collaborator and kindred spirit Elvis Costello) who simply doesn't know how to write inferior or filler songs. At least not very many, anyway. By normal standards, this is far from a subpar record, but it may be fair to say it seems slightly more everyday than much of Lowe's sparkling work. Still, this tune stands firm even if it doesn't particularly stand out, projecting the artist's masterful blend of pop and country-tinged rock and roll with workmanlike precision. Faint praise perhaps, but Lowe sets the bar high.
Lowe's follow-up record, the coolly titled but even more coldly received The Abominable Showman, is often seen as the singer-songwriter's artistic nadir. Even so, it contains some memorable songs that solidify Lowe's position as a guitar rock and power pop template for anyone interested in those styles of music. Some of the most charming elements of Lowe's music have always been simultaneous traditionalism and inventive modernism. On this track, the artist once again taps into the ear-candy melodies and generally harmless rambunctiousness of the earliest rock and roll, and the effect never fails to sound energetic and organic. No, this doesn't flirt with masterpiece territory, but its lively, crackling punch represents vintage Nick Lowe.
Though only released on a pair of solid '80s Nick Lowe compilations, this tune remains a solid gem of the artist's career, representative of the best of power pop impulses. Lyrically opaque as it is, the song's musical elements overshadow all else, especially in the infectious semi-chorus: "It goes on and on and on." Any question about Lowe's melodic capabilities melts instantly when he trots out melodies like these; I guess it's just a bit frustrating that some of his records are occasionally too playful to allow the talent to burn through to the surface. For this reason, it's wise to stretch beyond just studio albums. So grab Basher: the Best of Nick Lowe and enjoy the man's best work laid out impressively in one place.
During his years working with Brinsley Schwarz in the British pub rock scene of the '70s, Lowe developed a healthy fixation with roots rock and the interesting new paths he could blaze by combining such traditionalism with a modern, ultimately post-punk sensibility. With Rockpile, he worked with roots rock legend Dave Edmunds and maintained that specific interest. Although his first couple of albums of the '80s landed him quite firmly in the new wave and college rock camp, Lowe never abandoned a blended fascination with country, blues and pop. This amusing track dances blithely with tongue loosely in cheek, but it also employs a driving groove, some truly swinging organ (the instrument, mind you), and a spirited, rich timelessness.
Lowe wrapped up a prolific if not stratospheric first half of the '80s with his fourth album in four years, The Rose of England, a solid, eclectic effort that features one of his top melodies in the title track. In the true British tradition of drawing heavily from American music forms but forging new and exciting sounds, the singer-songwriter, as usual, defies the trends of the era, which may partially explain why his unabashed pop songs always had a hard time getting radio airplay. But this is typically substantial music from an established wordsmith and master storyteller, and if you don't believe that then consider who else could get away with a line in a pop song like, "For a feckless boy she did weep and wail."