Thursday, March 24, 2011


Is it that time of year again?

It's an annual tradition around here, my Nick Lowe Birthday Post. I started with Let's Stay In and Make Love, part of my first Nick Lowe week, back in 2007; then Without Love, three years ago; You Inspire Me two years ago; and I Got the Love, just last year. In the four-and-a-half years of this blog, I realize I've written nearly as many posts about Nick Lowe (56 and counting) as the years he has lived (62 and counting). But there is always more to say. 

Naturally, I turned to Labour of Lust, Nick's fabulous 1979 album that was finally reissued this spring. (Of course I have mine already.) And once I started listening, the choice was obvious.

[Photo credit: Dan Burn-Forti]

Nick doesn't sing "Cracking Up" in concert anymore; I suppose it's one of those songs that would seem absurd coming out of a white-haired gent in gray trousers and crisp white dress shirt. (No matter how groovy his new hipster black-framed glasses may be.) But for me, as a listener, it's still incredibly current. I can't think of many songs that capture that strung-out late-night feeling so perfectly. It's not just being high; it's being high and exhausted and neurotic and losing hold on reality. It could have been on the soundtrack to Black Swan and no one would have noticed it was 30 years old.

Just before this album was recorded, Nick Lowe and the rest of Rockpile had been touring non-stop for months; they'd barely gotten back to London before they hit the studio, simultaneously bashing out Nick's Labour of Lust and Dave Edmund's Repeat When Necessary. I've seen the BBC documentary Born Fighters; I remember the rambling all-nighter vibe of those sessions, full of empty wine bottles and overflowing ashtrays and musician friends sprawling on the studio sofas.    

Nick's singing in a weary growl that's as far as possible from "Cruel to Be Kind," the bubbly hit single that leads off this album. "Cracking Up" is track two, and -- how crafty is this? -- it's the diametric opposite, anti-pop and anti-melody. It's more like a Cubist string of jagged phrases, the zoned-out lament of somebody who's well past proper conversation. "Cracking up / I'm getting ready to go / Had enough / I can't take anymore . . . " The rhythms are half stammer, half syncopation. We've all known that guy, slumping over the table, slurring his words, feeling sorry for himself. Not that any of us have ever been that guy, of course....

He's not just a sloppy drunk, though -- that would be too easy. There's other drugs in his system ("No pills / That I can take / This is too real / And there ain't no escape") and he's getting paranoid -- "Everybody / All around me / Shakin' hands and / Sayin' howdy." When his bandmates chime in on "I don't think it's funny no more" (those taunting high harmonies) it's almost as if he's hearing voices. "I'm tense and / I'm nervous," he declares--oh really? 
As he slides further downhill, the lyrics get more and more aimlessly surreal: "Cracking up / Like a worn-out shoe / Ain't wet, / But the world's leakin' through" or "If I were a gunman / I would shoot / I'd tear the hair out / By the root."  By the end, I swear, he's just morosely playing with the sound of words: "I'd make a knife out / Of a notion / All at sea in an ocean of emotion." And just as that last phrase makes me giggle, he protests, "I don't think it's funny no more!"  Whooops.
  And now the genius bit:  Playing against those broken phrases, Billy Bremner's jangly guitar line keeps swooping sinuously down the scale and back up again, filling in the gaps with buoyant spirit. And those great Terry Williams drums, brightly bashing away, drive the energy home.  This guy may be cracking up--at least tonight--but the song is anything but a downer.   Was Nick Lowe really cracking up in those days?  Maybe, maybe not.  But Nick's not big on autobiographical songs; if he felt like he was having a nervous breakdown for five minutes, that'd've been enough to get a song out of it. And by the next track, anyway, he's bopping along with "Big Kick, Plain Scrap." Not that "Cracking Up" is a satire, necessarily, but it sure works as a sly little character study. After all, it wouldn't be a Nick Lowe song without playfulness and wit, would it? 


Alex said...

They burned bright and flamed out too soon - but while they were around Rockpile sure was amazing, weren't they?

Holly A Hughes said...

Indeed they were, indeed they were. And so much wittier than they ever got credit for, IMHO.

NickS said...

Thank you, that's a great song that I haven't thought of in a while.

In fact I remember using it on a mix-tape which I haven't listened to in a while.

Ah, yes, I cheated a bit and put it on my 80s mix. I hear it as fitting in with a New Wave sense of isolation.

So, on the mix I use it to start kick off a group of 80s indie-rock:

11: Crackin' Up: Nick Lowe
12: A New England: Billy Bragg
13: America Is: Violent Femmes
14: Take Stuff From Work: King Missile
15: Swinging Party: Replacements

I should pull that out and listen to it again.

Smiley said...

Always a great Birthday Tribute, Holly!