His fans know it's astounding what he can ring off inside four minutes. Besides pop hooks and tender epistles, you get literary gibes and folk-derived strolls through suburban dreams, slacker ennui and barstool tragedies that can simultaneously take the piss out of hipster totems and yupster self-gratification.
Lloyd Cole can fashion deceptively simple characters, similar to how Raymond Carver did, or unsophisticated, innocent disreputables like those who populated Tim Hardin songs or Jim Thompson pages; yarns of those hindered by unhappiness or love or drink or longing. You can sometimes feel the narrator's burden and doomed life, or his self-created troubles, and then the self-acceptance, no matter how much he dislikes himself. There's joy too, and his songs can seem as happy as life is, depending on how low or high you set your bar.
Cole got pinup time as a U.K. pop star fronting the hit-making Commotions in the 1980s. Beginning with his 1989 self-titled debut solo album, he'd become a real songwriter, one worthy of mass acclaim. The English-born singer-songwriter is prolific, and some of his best since 1989 include the self-titled debut, Love Story, Music in a Foreign Language, the outright pop of Lloyd Cole and the Negatives ("Impossible Girl" should've one of those that could put his grandkids through college), and the recent box set Cleaning Out the Ashtrays. Cole's pleasing talk-y croon complements the storytelling, and he has aged gracefully within the confines of his songs, like some Gen-X Paul Simon, which is no mean feat. He has even been covered by Tori Amos and Sandi Shaw.
Cole says his new studio album will be out in autumn, preceded by Volume 3 of his live-acoustic Folk Singer series. His Detroit date will test-drive his new combo. Expect songs old and new. Here we asked Cole five easy questions:
MT: As a kid growing up in the U.K., what Detroit artists moved you?
Cole: My parents had many Motown 45s; I loved all of them. I loved Alice [Cooper] — I had that poster of him hanging from the gallows on my wall for years (really!). In 1972, I had Killer and Love it to Death. Then I had bought Billion Dollar Babies and Muscle of Love. My band would love to play "No More Mr. Nice Guy" but it doesn't sound right acoustically!
MC5, on the other hand, I thought were awful — I think they thought because they liked Coltrane they were special. Isn't Iggy from around there? Who doesn't love Iggy?
MT: Any authors who changed your life, or at least changed how you looked at writing lyrics and narratives for pop songs?
Cole: Oh, God. Where to start? I think the most important, to start with, which made me think I could do stuff with songs were the New Journalism guys, Tom Wolfe et al. I think I thought if they can do that in such a structured media, I can give songwriting a go. Then, as Picasso said, copy your heroes: Joan Didion, Ray Carver, Renata Adler (Speedboat), Eric Rohmer, R.I.P.
I was also interested in postmodernism, and this sounds very embarrassing now — because we're post-post-everything — but the idea that one could tell the same story from two characters' perspectives, and they could read as two completely different characters, gave me a better understanding of art, I think.
MT: When there's critical talk of great singer-songwriters — Dylan, John Prine, Leonard Cohen, Lucinda Williams, even Tom Verlaine — Lloyd Cole is rarely, if ever, mentioned. It's as if you've been completely overlooked for two decades. Are you grateful or disappointed at how your career has (or has not) unfurled so far?
Cole: I get mentioned, just not in Rolling Stone or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I'm doing OK. I'm happy with my place in music. I wish it were a little bigger, better views, etc. But I'm not complaining.
Cohen sings of Hank Williams 100 floors above him in the "Tower of Song." I cover this song but make it "500."
MT: Love Story and Music in a Foreign Language are beautifully wrought albums. There's heartbreak and melancholia, even in its joy. Where was that coming from?
Cole: Life isn't easy. Happiness is fleeting. Addressing this directly isn't easy, but it seemed like the only thing left I hadn't tried. …
MT: From the outside, it looks as if you're now living the American Dream. Home in Massachusetts, cozy sweaters, family, sobriety, golf. … Some of those things are ideas that populate Antidepressant. How much of that is you, how much is irony? Or is it all fiction?
Cole: I'm not sober. I wish. Well, I am now, but maybe not later. The songs are all fiction, but the characters need voices. Finding the right words is the toughest, as that requires channeling extreme emotions one would rather avoid or forget.
I'm pretty happy, overall, right now. Back hurts. But 2009 was a good year.
Thursday, Jan. 28, at the Magic Bag, 22920 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-544-3030.Brian Smith is Metro Times managing editor. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org