In 1992, Nick Lowe wasn’t necessarily a household name among your average pop music fan, at least not in the United States. But the British singer/songwriter/producer was highly regarded by critics and discerning music lovers for his production work on albums by Elvis Costello, the Damned, Graham Parker, and the Pretenders. There’s also his own instantly lovable singles like “Cruel to Be Kind”, “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass”, and “So It Goes”. When his song “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love & Understanding” – famously covered by Costello – was also covered by Curtis Stigers, and that version appeared in the soundtrack to the Whitney Houston film The Bodyguard, everything changed. The soundtrack went on to sell a whopping 45 million copies, which resulted in massive royalty money for Lowe.
This sudden financial windfall gave Lowe the freedom to make albums entirely on his terms, and he never again felt any obligation to create music that catered to any particular demographic. In 1994, he released The Impossible Bird, a significant sonic departure that fell somewhere between rootsy country and classic, old-school pop. He followed it up with Dig My Mood four years later, mining the same territory but with even more of an accent on minor-key, confessional jazz/pop. In 2001, Lowe completed what many feel is a loose, unofficial trilogy with The Convincer. While the two albums that preceded it are beautiful, highly admirable works, The Convincer – now available in a deluxe 20th-anniversary reissue – managed to pull Lowe’s efforts into focus more than ever before, resulting in a gorgeous, impeccably crafted masterpiece.
Co-produced, like the previous two albums, by Neil Brockbank, The Convincer sees Lowe comfortably inhabiting middle age, standing by his well-documented promises of growing old gracefully. “There’s nothing more wretched than a used-up pop singer,” Lowe said in an interview for the Washington Post while promoting The Convincer 20 years ago. “It’s the most unappetizing spectacle. Look at someone like Ozzy Osbourne. I’m sure he’s a really nice bloke, but you do watch him and think to yourself, ‘You’re a grown, middle-aged man. How can you think this is good?’” With a shock of white hair, decked in a smart suit, and a cigarette in his hand, Lowe looks the part on the cover of The Convincer. The songs, meanwhile, continue where Dig My Mood left off.
“You look like butter wouldn’t melt in your mouth,” Lowe sings at the beginning of the album’s first song, “Homewrecker”. “But I know it will.” Geraint Watkins’ simmering organ gives the haunting ballad a bluesy feel, and the rest of the core band – Bobby Irwin on drums, Steve Donnelly on guitar, and Lowe himself on bass – follows suit. Lowe’s voice is right up front, emitting a soulful low register as he laments his romantic predicament.
It’s not all moody slow burns, though. “Lately I’ve Let Things Slide” carries itself like a classic midtempo ‘60s pop song, something Gene Pitney may have crooned back in the day. Easily one of Lowe’s most brilliant lyrics – and that’s saying a lot, considering his body of work – it’s sung from the viewpoint of a man who’s hit rock bottom and is lost in a fog of cigarettes and hangovers. “Smoking I once quit,” he sings, backed by Matt Holland’s flugelhorn, “Now I’ve got one lit / I just fell back into it / Along with my pride / Lately I’ve let things slide.” Even mundane tasks are filled with sadness: “I go to the bin / I throw the laundry in / Dig out the cleanest shirt / When all at once I’m seized again / By exquisite hurt.”
Always a deft lyricist on the level of Randy Newman or even his old pal Costello, Lowe takes an almost novelistic approach with “Indian Queens”, the tale of a drifter who leaves home to take on a variety of global adventures. The song opens with a stately brass arrangement and takes the listener from Panama to Yellowknife and beyond. “Drinking and brawling I drifted south / Where I worked the rigs off Galveston / One day a shark took a diver’s leg / And I dove in and drug him out.” But despite Lowe’s songwriting prowess, he isn’t above adding a couple of well-chosen covers to the album. The moody ’60s standard “Only a Fool Breaks His Own Heart” sees Lowe embracing his crooner’s side (with Watkins taking a beautiful organ solo), and Johnny Rivers’ “Poor Side of Town” is given a light, breezy run-through.
But despite those delightful diversions, it’s Lowe’s own songs that really shine. Continuing the despair that inhabited “Lately I’ve Let Things Slide” is the tearjerker ballad “I’m a Mess”, where the singer is devastated by heartbreak, boosted by a soulful horn section. Still, there’s room for a glimmer of hope: “One of these days / I’m gonna get back on my feet and quit this blue address,” he sings. “But darling, darling, darling, in the meantime / I’m a mess.”
It’s not all boozy confessions and blackouts, though. Closing the album proper is a seductive tale of monogamous bliss: On “Let’s Stay in and Make Love”, Lowe proposes a quiet romantic evening at home over a boring night of socializing. “Now you’re waiting in the hall / And I’m on the stair / Looking at you from above / And I say darling just for a change / Let’s stay in and make love.” That’s some pretty direct sentimentality from the guy who wrote “Marie Provost”, a toe-tapping pop song about a silent movie star whose dachshund ate her decomposed body, or “Nutted By Reality”, a song that begins with the line, “I heard they castrated Castro.” But that merely speaks to Lowe’s talents as a songwriter who works with a broad palette.
Since this version of The Convincer is a “deluxe” reissue, there are bonus tracks, although they’re not technically previously unreleased. The three additional recordings – available in the vinyl reissue as an additional 45 RPM disc – were part of the original Borders Books exclusive version released in 2001 (as an additional CD single). That isn’t to say, however, that these three tracks are superfluous. They sound wonderful and are a great addition to the album proper.
All songs are performed by Lowe on vocals and acoustic guitar and include covers of the Shirelles’ “Mama Said” and the Chi-Lites’ shimmering “There Will Never Be Any Peace (Until God is Seated at the Conference Table)”, as well as a Lowe original, “Different Kind of Blue”. The recordings have an intimate, demo-like quality to them. While it would have been interesting to hear them performed with the full Convincer band, the warm vibe of these recordings suits the compositions beautifully.
At 72, Lowe is still writing and recording. He followed up The Convincer with more albums along the same stylistic path (At My Age, The Old Magic) and has enjoyed a bit of a creative revival thanks to his frequent collaborations with Nashville surf-rock outfit Los Straitjackets. The Convincer is a textbook example of how to age gracefully in an era where so few know how to do it properly – as if you needed any more (ahem) convincing.