#475 – Elvis Costello – Armed Forces (1979)

January 19, 2012

This fall, I got to see Nick Lowe, one of my favorite living artists, performing in Central Park as an opening act for Wilco. Toward the end of his set, he announced that he’d like to do one by an old friend of his, and performed a lovely, soulful version of Elvis Costello’s “Alison”. He then performed one intermediate number, and segued without comment into “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding,” which he wrote, but which is most associated with Costello (and which appeared on the American version of this album). It was awkward enough, this poised, white haired gentleman and his guitar performing before Wilco’s semi-boisterous, semi-youthful crowd, but this choice of song order sent a spasm of sympathetic anxiety through me. I saw what he was trying to do–to indicate in a tactical sort of way that he had some history with the more famous Costello, and was in fact the author of one of Costello’s biggest hits. But Lowe is both a gentleman and a terminally awkward, self-effacing Englishman, and in attempting to assert his right to be thought of alongside Costello, I think he kind of undersold and botched it in a way that had the opposite of intended effect. If you were a Wilco fan only half paying attention, you would probably conclude that, for some reason, this guy was giving over the end of his set to paying tribute to Elvis Costello.

In my opinion, Nick Lowe is the better songwriter, by far the better singer, and, if I may, the better man. Yet Costello has managed to convince critics and the public alike that he is the one more worthy of their attention. Lowe was both a hero and mentor to the young MacManus, and an instrumental figure in launching his career. There are four Elvis Costello records on this list, and this is one of the three of those which were produced by Nick Lowe, who has no albums of his own on this list at all. Since there’s so much Costello to go around, and since this record felt sort of unrewardingly dense to me at first listen, I thought I’d devote this entry to singing the praises of Nick Lowe, and wondering aloud how it came to be that Elvis Costello is a household name, and Nick Lowe is not.

At the same time that Lowe was producing Costello’s early albums, he put out a handful of records of his own such as Jesus of Cool and Labour of Lust that are models of good, tight, unpretentious rock albums. They come out of the back-to-basics Pub Rock movement of which Lowe’s earlier band, Brinsley Schwartz, was a key figure, but are also considered foundational albums of the New Wave movement. The key word here is “unpretentious”. Lowe’s songs crackle with energy, intelligence and craft, but their obvious aim is to provide a simple, good time listening experience. (The cheeky title for the American version of Jesus of Cool was Pure Pop for Now People.) Costello showed a bit more of a serious streak out of the gate, and his higher critical esteem is a result of this. While Lowe’s early albums are for me a more enjoyable listening experience over all, I will reluctantly concede that there aren’t any songs with the emotional heft of, say, “Alison”.

From here, the two set forth on their separate destinies. Costello seemed to take himself ever more seriously, made music that was ever artier and more lyrically opaque, and sang with an ever escalating quality of strained, irritating hoarseness. Throughout the 80’s, Lowe seemed to struggle with his own indolence, lack of success, and a pained ambivalence around the relationship between pop music and art. He was as deft a songwriter as could be, but seemed determined not to let himself become the kind of bloated, pretentious capital A “Artist” that he and his fellow Pub Rockers used to scoff at. He made some pretty iffy records during this time, and a few pretty good ones too. He had a small handful of minor, slightly corny hits like “I Knew the Bride When She Used to Rock ‘n Roll”.

Then, in the mid 90’s, the worm began to turn. Around the time that Declan MacManus, International Art Thief (as 30 Rock put it) started promiscuously collaborating with Burt Bacharach and Anne Sophie van Otter and appearing on every tribute album imaginable, Lowe quietly set about to making the best music of his career. Some young fella had a big hit reviving “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding,” and the royalty checks freed Lowe from the strain of having to try to calculate, as he had always done poorly, what it was his audience wanted to hear. At the same time, his marriage had fallen apart, and the resultant heartbreak gave new gravity and depth to his songwriting. Between 1994 and 2001, he released a trio of records that are, in my view, absolute masterpieces of American music, British though he may be. They draw on country music, soul, American popular song, and so on–the broad highway of American vernacular music. His lyrical turns of phrase remained as clever and astute as ever, but they were anchored by a newfound maturity, honesty and emotional vulnerability that his earlier work lacks. His voice became a mellow, mournful croon. At the time, these records flew largely under the radar, with occasional exceptions. Lowe’s own version of “The Beast in Me,” which he wrote for his former father-in-law Johnny Cash, closed out the very first episode of The Sopranos, and is still the best known song of this period. I knew of the first two of these records–The Impossible Bird and Dig My Mood–through my father, but didn’t become seriously enamored of them myself until the summer of 2001, when I was nursing a broken heart. They became amiable and constant companions. The third and arguably best of the trio, The Convincer, had the misfortune of being released on September 11 of that year. I remember buying it that morning, not yet aware of what was transpiring in the world outside.

Since that time, the reputation of these three records has grown, and with it has an acknowledgement of Lowe’s importance. He’s put out a few albums since in a similar vein, which are great, but not masterpieces. I think the difference is that he’s happily remarried, and the newer songs lack the devastating sincerity of his heartbroken period. His undervalued first two records have been given the deluxe reissue treatment. He and Elvis Costello seem to have an amicable relationship. Costello has that TV show where he inserts himself into everyone else’s music–Nick Lowe was on that once, and I attended the taping, up at the Apollo Theater. One other time when I saw Nick Lowe playing, Costello came out as the surprise guest. That guy is everywhere!

While I’ve been implicitly down on Costello in this piece, I don’t think he’s a bad guy, or a bad songwriter. (I do think he’s a bad singer, though.) Truthfully, I’m not as well versed in his music as perhaps I ought be. For my purposes, though, I feel that Nick Lowe is the truer artist. While his greatest gifts flowered later in life, they glow more warmly than Costello’s more youthful flashes of articulate rage. As a result of better timing and cannier self promotion, Costello got more fame and adulation, but I think even he realizes that Nick Lowe can do some things he can’t. Here’s a favorite Nick Lowe song of mine, which Costello has gone to the trouble of singling out for praise as well:

Source: MOG, which preserves the track order of the original British release, but adds “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding” at the end.

One Response to “#475 – Elvis Costello – Armed Forces (1979)”

  1. […] my entry for Armed Forces lower down on the list, I indulged in a lengthy digression about how much better I like Nick Lowe, […]

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