If you’re a songwriter, you know you’ve touched nerves when plays inspired by your songs are written and staged. One called Lloyd Cole, You’re My Father recently hit the U.K. stage. Another titled Why I Love Lloyd Cole was commissioned in Sweden for public broadcasting. More than any hit record, this form of pop sycophancy must be the most flattering, particularly if you’re Lloyd Cole.
But Cole finds this obsequiousness baffling, almost contrary to his personal beliefs. He’s a guy well versed in self-deprecation; his career, after all, has withstood far more lows than it has had highs.
“Good things have been happening by the fact I have this persona that people don’t want to let go of,” says the soft-spoken Cole via telephone from his home in Northampton, Mass. “I’m not so sure if it’s career-sustaining … maybe myth-sustaining.”
Back in the early ’80s, the fashion-oriented English record industry pedestalized Cole, his swingy hips and floppy fringe. His shimmering, literate pop had over-madeup schoolgirls with Madonna wedges shaking their miniskirted hips all across the U.K. Cole and his jangly band of semimerry Scots, The Commotions, released three well-received albums before calling it quits.
Then Cole went solo and moved to New York City in 1989. His cherubic visage made a rather successful transition from Sensitive Pin-Up to a sulky, slightly alcoholic-looking pop melancholic Leonard Cohen. From the outside, said transition could have easily been perceived as some calculated attempt at career longevity. History teaches us that the U.K. can be remarkably unkind to anything so-15-minutes-ago.
“Well, I didn’t do it on purpose, really,” says the English-born Scot expatriate who turned 40 this year. “In retrospect, I think the person that I am is a bit of all those things, though I’m certainly not an alcoholic. I probably could be an alcoholic if I didn’t have a family. But if I was an alcoholic, I would be fat and I don’t want to be fat.”
Cole is now married to an American and has two small children, both boys, and he claims to genuinely dig America. As evidenced in his songs, he likes the contradictions found here, even calls it the territory of great artists.
“The countries where everything makes sense are basically totalitarian,” he says. “Nothing makes sense here. And great artists thrive on inconsistency, juxtaposition. Artists thrive here. Especially in New York.”
For a guy who quotes tough-ass author-drinker Harry Crews, traces the minimalist prose of Raymond Carver to his own lyrical downsizing and, like Cohen, uses self-deception as a kind of storytelling device (“Anyone who’s interested in relationships or happiness gone wrong is going to be interested in self-deception”), the contradictions are rampant. What’s more, here’s a guy who finds himself with both a history and a career in an industry built on self-aggrandizing.
“I’m learning to become a self-promoter,” he cracks. “I’ve been wearing a lot of different hats. I’ve been existing as my own manager for the last year or so and it’s basically a failed experiment, but interesting. It’s been a good thing to do, because it’s made me feel like wanting to make music again instead of sitting around answering telephone calls and doing e-mail all day.”
A spotty two-album wallow in the mid-’90s (Don’t Get Weird on Me Babe and Bad Vibes) followed a brilliant Avalon-era, Roxy Music-meets-Dylan, self-titled solo debut. Then Cole coughed up Love Story, a stunning (and, yes, the word is selected cautiously) collection of singsongy, Carveresque spins on adulthood that captured him at his best, mixing irony and empathy under themes of relationships gone sour.
Cole’s latest, The Negatives, his first since 1995’s Love Story, and the first of three tentatively scheduled new records, finds him working in the confines of a proper “band” again. (The aptly named Negatives: Dave Derby, bass; Michael Kotch, guitar; Rafa Maciejak, drums; Jill Sobule, guitar.) As narrator, Cole is constantly shifting gears, saying one thing, meaning another and landing somewhere else.
The disc is an at times lovely collection of vintage Cole: graceful, guitar-poppy hooks stroked with strings and saddled with terse — often purposely cynical — narrative and conjecture. There’s plenty of blueish self-mockery, too. On “Man on the Verge,” we find a guy coming clean to a life that is bereft of ambition and underlined with sadness: “Waiting for the kiss of life/Seemingly lost without a TV guide … Single melancholy male/owning up to loneliness is no big deal.”
On “What’s Wrong With This Picture,” the clumsy pessimist — the one fans have grown to both distrust and adore over the years — begins to expect a favorable outcome as he peers through a sober looking glass: “Open your eyes, there’s nothing but blue skies.”
Cole says that sort of optimism was born of myriad career misfires. “For me it was not until we had real genuine failure in my career with Bad Vibes doing so poorly and my record company having no faith in me that I was able to find a place on the Love Story record that I was, like, ‘Yeah, I can do that.’
“You know, I really didn’t know when I left the Commotions if I could be a solo artist. I know a lot of people think that’s bullshit. I didn’t know what it was that I could do on my own until I tried. I was well prepared to not do anything.
“All I really did in the Commotions was play rhythm guitar and sing. When I got over that, I went too far the other way, in my opinion. I really believed that I could do any kind of music I wanted. I am sure I thought I was Prince for a couple of years, which, in retrospect, there’s some laughable songs on a couple of those records. It’s what comes from not really being aware of one’s own limitations, which is fun. I mean, young people should do that.”
What songs make him cringe now?
“‘To the Lions’ on Don’t Get Weird on Me Babe is really quite ridiculous,” he says, laughing. “We were trying to sound like ZZ Top on that or something. It does not sound like ZZ Top at all. It sounds like a bunch of college graduates trying to sound like ZZ Top!”
Now Cole is keen to make what he calls a “really small-sounding record. You listen to some of those Bob Dylan records — they’re just him and a guitar and they sound pretty good. I’m not sure I’m gonna go that far, but I’m certainly gonna try.”
The jury is still out on whether history will allow Cole admission into the Immortal Songwriters Club, or if he is, as some suspect, the songwriter of his generation.
“It’s an interesting place to be where I’m at right now,” he says. “Things have been pretty rotten the last few years, but there’s no reason why they should stay rotten.”Brian Smith is a freelance writer from Phoenix. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org