On the front and back covers of "Night Fades Away," Nils Lofgren slouches unshaven in a ripped and rumpled undershirt, fatigue glazing his eyes and sweat beading his brow. The appearance is that he's put up one heck of a tussle getting these 10 tracks together, and maybe he did. But what lies between these images is pop so clean and crisp that it sounds elegantly effortless.
By far Lofgren's best effort, "Night" is defined by a winning spirit that's shared by the entire crew, and because the talents involved are so richly layered and generously spread out, even the weaker songs show some muscle. It's not just that things are done right, but that they're done with deliberation and will.
Lofgren's voice has a new confidence: Lou Reed in a sweet humor, or Todd Rundgren with a mean streak. On occasion it drifts uncomfortably close to a croon, but when this happens it still sounds better than Rick Springfield.
The non-Lofgren material is well chosen. The best is Del Shannon's "I Go to Pieces," originally written for Peter and Gordon and covered since by many. Here, Shannon joins Lofgren on the vocals, marking the first time he's recorded his own standard. The two voices were recorded simultaneously, rather than on separate tracks, and the result is brilliant, buoyant pop that modulates just a tiny step at precisely the right moment. Similarly well-executed is Lennon and McCartney's "Anytime at All," performed faithfully, but not slavishly.
Lofgren's own writing is generally above par, with the exception of "Sailor Boy," a ragged little ditty stranded on the shoals of Margaritaville. Fortunately, it's not even on the same side of the record as "Empty Heart," a song packed with hit-single credentials. The opening guitar lines constitute a hook, the sentiment of the chorus shapes yet another. Even the spaces between notes, of which there are plenty, are catchy subliminal complements to the lyrics. It's the kind of pure pop perfection that ought to give Nick Lowe fresh inspiration.
One cannot even begin to discuss this album without mention of Jeff Baxter, whose rock resume is beginning to cast a pretty big shadow. Apparently unsatisfied with being only a top-rank guitarist, Baxter gave hints of an equally formidable talent at the controls when he produced Billy and the Beaters' live debut earlier this year. On "Night Fades Away," he co-wrote two tunes, played guitar and guitar synthesizer and produced the whole shining shebang, and his trademark clarity is everywhere in evidence.
Lofgren's willingness to give vent to Baxter's instincts makes potentially ho-hum songs spring to life. "Streets Again" is transformed from a run-of-the-bordello rocker by Nicky Hopkins' bawdy tack piano, and Larold Rebhun's arrangement of "Dirty Money" features a growly undercurrent of the original, definitive "Money."
There's a prevailing sense of "I've-always- wanted-to-do-this" throughout "Night Fades Away," from Lofgren's unapologetic pop styling, to Baxter's polished production, to Del Shannon's whimsical irony to Annie Leibovitz' anti-fanzine photography. I'm glad they finally did.
THE ALBUM -- Nils Lofgren, "Night Fades Away," Backstreet (BSR-5251).