Lloyd Cole is a pretentious twit — in the nicest possible sense. Which is to say the English (Buxton, in the north) singer/songwriter is highly literate and ultra-sensitive. Always has been, ever since he first turned up, after forming a band while attending college in Glasgow, with 1984’s Rattlesnakes. Coming on like a typical new Dylan/Reed in the nascent R.E.M./Smiths era, Cole speaks French (“2cv”), drops names (Arthur Lee, Norman Mailer), rewrites novelists (Renata Adler, Joan Didion), deliberately mispronounces “Eva Marie Saint” (to rhyme with “On the Waterfront”) and lets his voice break with wounded affect in all the right places. That he manages to do so with some levity, while the Commotions veer between forceful thrumming (a little hometown Postcard Records influence there) and moody heartbreakers, makes the record a treat, albeit an instantly nostalgic one. Its naïfish, momentarily novel pleasures were not to be equaled. The 2004 British reissue is a deluxe edition.
Easy Pieces, smoothly produced by the team of Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, succumbs to hazards threatened on the first LP. While the solid band remains unprepossessing, Cole’s vocals are overly stylized; quoting Bolan and the Beatles, his lyrics veer towards meaningless self-importance. Given that it’s not strikingly different from Rattlesnakes, Easy Pieces leaves you wondering why you liked the band in the first place. (The CD has three extra tracks.)
Cole regained his footing and momentum on Mainstream: factoring in maturity and experience (his and the band’s), it actually winds up a better album than the first. Subtly cast and deftly played arrangements that range from Aztec Camera airiness to fleshed-out light rock keep songs like “Sean Penn Blues” and “Mister Malcontent” from drifting into ponderousness; Cole’s affecting singing is likewise finely wrought. The shimmering “From the Hip” and “Hey Rusty,” an ace song that builds tension slowly, are highlights of this welcome return.
Moving to New York without the Commotions, Cole put the band concept in his past with 1984 — 1989. The compilation contains four cuts from each of the three albums plus a couple of non-LP B-sides — a decent retrospective, but it would have been better to pick the best songs overall rather than give each record equal representation.
The end of the Commotions didn’t much matter — it was always Cole’s show. (Bloomsday, a band formed by two ex-Commotions — guitarist Neil Clark and drummer Stephen Irvine — emerged in 1990.) Besides, the band’s keyboardist (and Cole’s co-writer) Blair Cowan and, eventually, guitarist Neil Clark, remained among the star’s key collaborators, even after he moved to New York and took up with drummer/producer Fred Maher and guitarist Robert Quine, who brought in a bassist named Matthew Sweet. Quine’s reliably understated seething is in large part what makes Lloyd Cole decent. Slow-starting numbers like “Don’t Look Back” and “No Blue Skies” benefit greatly from Quine’s nervous tension; Cole’s glibness and glumness carry the day on the ballads “Undressed” and “To the Church.”
Cole then went to extremes — the strength of Don’t Get Weird on Me Babe and the weakness of Bad Vibes. The former is definitively divided between rousing pop songs and yearning, Paul Buckmaster-orchestrated epics. Cole has since said he wishes he’d gone whole-hog on the symphonic tip, but that’s selling his zippy little guitar-rockers short, especially the Quine-addled “Tell Your Sister,” the muscular “Weeping Wine” and the ultra-hooky, seemingly fatuous “She’s a Girl and I’m a Man,” which is actually a touching exercise in self-deprecation. Yet the ominous urgency of the flipside (metaphorically speaking) is in fact superior, with Cole’s uncomplicated romantic angst made fleshy and devastating by the surrounding lushness of woodwinds, strings, percussion, piano and female backing vocals. A great record.
Not so its successor. Quine is gone, replaced by ex-Banshee John Carruthers; the producer is Adam Peters, late of the Flowerpot Men (he also co-auteured the Triffids’ fussiest record). While Cole can’t help but pen a few memorable songs, including his usual dose of clever-or-stupid wordsmithery (for example, “Everybody knows that she’s worse than religion”), Bad Vibes is a cluttered work that sinks under the weight of busy electronics, strained psychedelic atmosphere and — ugh! — misbegotten funk. (Fun fact: Due to either bizarre coincidence or simple cheek, Cole’s old Glasgow mates del Amitri rephrased the opening lines of Cole’s “So You’d Like to Save the World” in “Start With Me” on their Twisted album.)
“The more I learn, the less I know,” Cole sings on Love Story‘s second song. Never mind that “will you make mine straight Absolut?” completes the couplet; maybe it’s supposed to be a pun. And so he’s back where he started — for this minimal record, Neil Clark joins Quine on guitars, and Peters reins himself in considerably — but filtered through the sensibility of a wistful thirtysomething rather than a wordy newcomer. Writing a whole album of songs like “Baby,” “Sentimental Fool” and the devoted-doormat lament “Happy for You,” however, is very nearly an adolescent exercise — you’d get just as much insight into the heart’s complexities from the Shirelles. But simplicity is the point, and the music animates the lyrics. There’s certainly nothing lacking in the spare, well-crafted songwriting or Cole’s frequently beauteous (and ever-breaking) shaggy-dog voice. Lovely, precious and sappy — in the nicest possible sense. (The Cat Stevens-tweaking “Morning Is Broken” was released as an EP with a couple of bonus tracks.)
After a long layoff following an artist purge at his label, Cole formed a band he dubbed the Negatives, which gave his next album its title. With Jill Sobule on bass and Dave Derby of the Dambuilders on guitar, Cole made one of the best albums of his career. The Negatives is as musically sophisticated as ever, but it boasts superlative lyrical subtlety in a loosely linked exploration of Cole’s standard themes on attraction and doubt. Loaded with both insights and moments of sardonic wit, The Negatives merits multiple hearings. “The Impossible Girl” and “What’s Wrong With This Picture?” (“Nothing at all,” he answers) are insistently hummable pop of a reliably high calibre; “Tried to Rock” is Cole at his self-deprecatingest.
While pursuing the kind of life that his lyrics have always hinted at — commenting on literature and cuisine, playing golf, performing in Europe and North America on a host of intimate club tours — Cole launched a period of startling productivity with the Negatives, producing a host of quality work over the next several years that rivals his period with the Commotions.
Music in a Foreign Language, self-produced with largely acoustic instrumentation, is a subdued pleasure. Having relocated to western Massachusetts, Cole isn’t quite a folksinger, but his sensitive delivery and delicate guitar playing would make him at home in that context. Recorded with almost no embellishments (save for the sound of Cole’s fingers squeaking on the strings), Music in a Foreign Language is not music meant for rock clubs, or even parties. The title track is an intimate delight packed with the kind of detailed observation that Cole has long perfected; his cover of Nick Cave’s “People Ain’t No Good” could be an ironic half-response to his own “You Will Never Be No Good” from the Commotions days. Cole has long emulated Leonard Cohen, performing “Chelsea Hotel” and “Famous Blue Raincoat” on tributes, and this album shows a definite Cohen influence.
One Little Indian assembled some of the unreleased-in-America items from Cole’s previously quiet period for release in 2004 to accompany Music in a Foreign Language. Etc compiles outtakes from his recent solo years; Plastic Wood is an instrumental record with both acoustic and electronic components.
Antidepressant, another studio album of new material, was released in 2006 on the Sanctuary label — which previously had led Morrissey back to chart stardom in the UK. While Cole’s commercial fortunes have never borne that kind of fruit, his renewed artistic successes are an encouragement to those who long admired his steadfast adherence to classic songwriting virtues.
In the spirit of classic pop songwriting, Cole’s profile received an unexpected boost in 2006 when Glaswegians Camera Obscura provided a belated response to the question the Commotions posed in a 1984 single: “Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken?” Camera Obscura’s hit single “Lloyd, I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken” ranked on critics’ lists on both sides of the Atlantic and prompted fond recollections of Cole’s heyday, conveniently timed with his artistic resurgence.