Certain Songs #1333: Nick Lowe – “Cruel to Be Kind”

Album: Labour of Lust
Year: 1979

Why “Cruel to Be Kind”??

Without dismissing it as a song — it’s a great pop song on every level — out of all of the great power-pop songs floating around in 1979, how is it that “Cruel to Be Kind” became a massive hit, peaking a #12 not just here in the U.S., but also in the U.K., Australia, Canada and New Zealand?

After all, it wasn’t like rock ‘n’ roll had completely been erased from the charts: artists like Cheap Trick, Foreigner, Dire Straits and Bad Company all had massive singles in 1979, and the biggest song of the year was “My Sharona“, for god’s sake.

And yet, the success of “Cruel to Be Kind” still seems incongruous, even in that context: I remember being suspicious of it, not even buying Labour of Lust until the summer of 1980, finally hearing it as a great lead-off track as well as a song that stood out on the AM radio I was forced to listen to at work.

Oh, I can’t take another heartache
Though you say you’re my friend
I’m at my wits’ end
You say your love is bona fide
But that don’t coincide
With the things that you do
And when I ask you to be nice, you say

In any event, nearly 40 years later, “Cruel to Be Kind” still sounds fucking amazing: kicking off with a Terry Williams roll, and anchored by feather-lite acoustic guitars from Dave Edmunds and Billy Bremner, and of course the call-and-response chorus, featuring Edmunds and Bremner in utterly gorgeous form, alternating supporting Lowe singing the song’s title or singing “di-di-di-duh-di” underneath him.

You’ve gotta be
Cruel to be kind, in the right measure
Cruel to be kind, it’s a very good sign
Cruel to be kind, means that I love you
Baaaaaay-beeeeee
(You’ve gotta be cruel)
You’ve gotta be cruel to be kind

The back half of that chorus was all tension and release as Williams did a quick build on the drums that really allowed all of the vocal harmony gymnastics to jump out at you.

Nearly as good was the quick simple guitar solo by Billy Bremner, coming of a nice Williams roll to play the melody line of the chorus before branching off just a skosh, setting up the final verse.

Well, I do my best to understand, dear
But you still mystify
And I want to know why
I pick myself up off the ground
To have you knock me back down
Again and again
And when I ask you to explain, you say

Outside of the outsized hook and great harmonies, there’s a bunch of other cool little things going on in the back half of “Cruel to Be Kind.” My favorite is probably the weird noises in the background, that sound like little yelps, but I think are either some kind of accidental echo on the vocals or hands sliding up and down guitar strings. What I like about it is that “Cruel to Be Kind” is otherwise almost too slick without those random weird noises messing up the perfection like moles on a supermodel.

My other favorite thing is the way that Lowe sings the song: bemused the entire time, but killing it every single time he gets to the word “say,” and even better, the way he pronounces “you gotta be” the last time they hit the chorus, which they repeat over and over and over for nearly the last minute of the song. Which makes sense: when you’ve written a chorus this irresistible, why not repeat it over and over?

“Cruel to be Kind” Official Video

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