by Jeff Siegel
At first listen, there's nothing particularly subversive about Nick Lowe's Jesus of Cool. It has a bunch of Beach Boys-esque harmonies, some George Martin production touches, and an odd pop sheen.
But listen to it 30 years later, in its Yep Roc records re-release, and it's easy to see that Lowe – though no punk himself – was truly the poet laureate of punk and New Wave. And the record? If it's not quite the undisputed pop masterpiece that many claim it to be, it's damn close. Jesus of Cool's 11 songs are a road map – not only of where rock 'n roll had been, but where it would go. It's difficult to imagine Fountains of Wayne without Jesus of Cool; "Stacy's Mom" is the bastard child of Lowe's "Cruel to be Kind."
Lowe has two great skills as a songwriter. His hooks are as big and lush as anyone's, including Lennon and McCartney. The other is his perspective, which is just skewed enough to be interesting but not so off-putting as to reduce him to a novelty act. "Cruel to be Kind," Lowe's only U.S. Top 40 hit (and an early version of which is among the 10 bonus tracks on this album), not only has an insistent chorus, but its sentiments are the opposite of what every other songwriter, even Lennon-McCartney, would have written. It's the Marvel Comics version of the Beatles' DC Comics approach. "I Saw Her Standing There" is brilliant, but it isn't brilliantly quirky.
Lowe dresses the tunes on Jesus of Cool in the fashionable, three-minute, three-chord clothing that radio programmers, record company executives and unwary listeners had come to expect. But it's the emperor's new clothes that the songs are wearing:
• "Marie Provost," in which an elderly movie actress is eaten by her dogs, and featuring yet another huge hook.
• "Music for Money," which opens the album, and in which Lowe seriously insists that being a pop star is all about the cash.
• "Heart of the City," recorded live with Dave Edmunds and Rockpile, which puts the rock back into rock 'n roll after progressive rock and disco had had their way with the music.
• "So it Goes," which is equal parts New Wave guitar riffs, Dylan-like lyrics, and music business commentary, all surrounding yet another big, fat hook. I didn't understand the song 30 years ago, and I'm not sure I understand it any better today.
When Columbia released Jesus of Cool in the U.S., it re-titled it Pure Pop for Now People and rejiggered the album's lineup, adding a song called "Rollers Show" (also included among the bonus tracks). This is yet another example of how little record companies know about making records. "Rollers Show" is Lowe at his most evil genius, a parody of the corporate rock that the New Wave and punk were rebelling against. Did Columbia not know that the song, which is about a group of Bay City Rollers fans getting ready for a concert, was a joke?
How much more subversive can an album be than one that fools the bosses who pay for it?
(Album cover art from Jesus of Cool is part of the Yep Roc Records promotional package for Nick Lowe. To see Nick Lowe and Rockpile perform "So It Goes" live, please check below.)
Jesus of Cool
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by Jeff Siegel