Some people like music. Others prefer songs, and they’re not exactly the same thing. Songs are an aggressively limited subset of music – a special case that the future will probably find to have been somewhat overvalued in our era. Those who privilege “the song” hold wit, efficiency and a kind of emotional populism as the highest values in music, along with the viral and mnemonic properties of melody and language. They will also frequently cite “that extra something”: a mysterious, elusive and irresistible quality that is the difference between the universal and the merely common – the difference between a hit.
Except today’s song purists don’t give a hoot about actual hits, mass appeal and economic validations anymore. Their hits are of the should-have-been, in-a-perfect-world kind. Their contemporary heroes tend to be commercially marginal club-circuit warriors. Extraordinary craftspeople, such as the virtuosic roots writer Robbie Fulks or power-pop high adepts Fountains of Wayne, write every song to sound just like a hit – to evince hitlike qualities – without ever actually expecting or having any. (Well, Fountains of Wayne had the one.)
Modern song purists revere the enforced pith of the 45-rpm single: three minutes of gold-or-bust, two chances. The ‘50s and early ‘60s were their Eden, but they did not go gentle when the landscape changed, when psychedelic drugs and 33 1/3-rpm enabled the prodigal excesses of rock. This struck the song purists as something like playing tennis without a net (how Robert Frost described free verse). Marginalized and radicalized, they struck back with pub rock, punk, New Wave, alt/country, power pop and countless other reassertions and revivals of common pop values in all the genres. Nick Lowe has had his fingers in pretty much all of that. He is a saint of the song.
Lowe once described the feeling he had while writing “What’s So Funny ‘bout Peace, Love and Understanding,” the song that – like some kind of latent lottery ticket – would become a minor hit for Elvis Costello and then would make Lowe rich 20 years after it was written when it was sung by Curtis Stigers on the soundtrack for The Bodyguard, one of the best-selling records of all time. Lowe recounted thinking, “Please don’t let me mess this one up.” The title alone was so great, such a complete and powerful sentiment in itself, that Lowe knew he needed to stay out of its way – which is songwriter Zen-speak for keeping it clean and common, avoiding the temptation to impress cleverness and idiosyncrasy upon it and in so doing, squander its universality.
Unlike his friend and frequent collaborator Elvis Costello, who composed a chamber music song cycle with The Juliet Letters and an actual long-form orchestral work released on Deutsche Grammophon with Il Sogno, the Basher has never courted anything but the verities of the great, simple song. He broke in with the no-nonsense pub rock of Brinsley Schwartz, produced invigorating lo-fi records by Graham Parker, the Damned, the Pretenders, Elvis Costello and many others. He made two critically and commercially successful solo albums at the turn of the ‘80s, and had hits with Rockpile, the pub rock supergroup that he co-fronted with Dave Edmunds.
Lowe has enjoyed a remarkable late-career renaissance by staying out of the way of his best ideas, letting the romantic conceits and puns around which his songs are built play out organically, and knowing when it’s a wrap. Starting on 1990’s Party of One, which sports at least two should-have-been classics in “What’s Shakin’ on the Hill” and “All Men Are Liars,” Lowe has been on a hell of a roll, releasing the country cult classic The Impossible Bird in 1994 and following it with a steady drip of irreproachably mature sets that move gracefully among country, swanky Bacharachian lounge and sweet, naïve pre-rock pop, including 2011’s excellent The Old Magic. It has been such a startling and sustained run of easygoing inspiration that Lowe had to title his latest greatest hits collection Quiet Please: The New Best of Nick Lowe. And that volume is already obsolete.
Song purists limit their playing field aggressively. This exposes them to some specific dangers. Lowe avoids the most common pitfalls – historical studiousness and referentiality, self-conscious classicism – with his easy, burnished vocal delivery and the assured performances of his close coterie of sidemen. Again and again, Lowe’s songs and performances pass the final and highest test of populist songcraft: Does it sound so easy that you think you could write it yourself? The answers are almost always “Yes” and “But you can’t.”
Nick Lowe with special guest Kim Richey, Wednesday, August 21, 8 p.m., $45, Club Helsinki, 405 Columbia Street, Hudson; (518) 828-4800, https://helsinkihudson.com.