My waking life is largely being spent writing a history of/argument for progressive rock. I’ve wanted to write this thing since at least 2002, and it’s harder than you’d think to polish off a project with that kind of inspiration. But not too hard. When I write, I often listen to relevant music with my headphones’ volume half-turned up. The exception to that “often” — usually, the solo records of Lloyd Cole.
How’d I come upon Lloyd Cole in the first place? It was definitely during the lost age of the record store, in that period — a decade? — when the Internet could point you to new music but couldn’t put it instantly on your title computer-phone. I’d gotten into Matthew Sweet in high school, and when I ran out of new Sweet records (he released nothing new from 1999 to 2003) I discovered that my mopey power-pop star had previously been a bassist for someone named Lloyd Cole. More research. Robert Quine, the man who made such disturbing sounds on Lou Reed’s renaissance albums, had played guitar with this guy!
So I trekked down to Mr. Wax or Jeremiah’s or some such place and bought the “wrong” album. I got 1990’s “Lloyd Cole,” the first solo effort by a 29-year old who was, in rock terms, nearly a has-been. In the mid-80s, Cole had been the front man for the Commotions, a pop group with all the miserable lyrics of the Smiths (“Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken?”) and all the guitar jangle of Orange Juice. In 1990, he’d broken up the man and moved to New York and recorded a suite of depressing songs about cocaine and heartbreak and betrayal.
“Generally, my overview of life is that optimism is fairly redundant,” Cole told an interviewer at the time. “Certainly it leads to more unhappiness than a realistic, pessimistic approach to life. I don’t think I expect that much from life.”
The dude was married and pretty successful, but the record was bleak. And there on the single “No Blue Skies” was Sweet’s voice, unmistakable, singing a lyric he could have written: “Baby, you’re too well read.” Other lyrics were clearly the work of a sad, handsome Englishman: “You’re falling back into the English way of feeling only guilt ‘cuz you feel no pain.”
It was a loping, moping suite of music with some brilliant touches made by someone who was trying to rattle himself into a new mood. “Loveless” (you can guess the lyrical content) began with the sound of a falling can; “A Long Way Down” began with a brief, melodic orchestral piece. “Ice Cream Girl” relied on a guitar hook that never stopped shimmering. The record raced from style to style, something that was not true of the next album, which should have been Cole’s breakout. And it sort of was — people actually bought the hit single, sung from the vantage point of an angry man veering toward misogyny.
He thought that women and drink would make a man out of him
But the extent of his studies left a jaded man
So as she led him to the altar he was easily led
And when they asked him if he did, well, then this is what he said
“She’s gotta be the stupidest girl, I’ve ever seen
She don’t care who, why, where I’ve been
She’s got a right to be with all that’s wrong with me
But she doesn’t wanna understand that she’s a girl and I’m a man”
There was a hominess and safeness to the record. Side one moved quickly; Side two was stuffed with ballads. Cole grew a bit more experimental on Bad Vibes, an album whose song titles told the story that the album cover already told — Cole slumping handsomely in a lonely corner. “Love You So What.” “Can’t Get Arrested. He even sequenced a rocker called “So You’d Like to Save the World” — a jeer at a snobby environmentalist who, among other sins, is ignoring the narrator — with a ballad titled “Holier Than Thou.”
Bad Vibes was Cole’s worst-performing album, hitting with a thunk in a British music market that was starting to embrace the sounds of Suede and Ride and Blur (and soon, Oasis.) Cole returned in 1995 with Love Story, a record as apparently saccharine as the other records were sour. For the first time, Cole himself did not appear on one of his solo album covers. The record buyer saw a pleasant if slightly cloud seascape, and when he hit play he heard a warm, acoustic guitar tune playing under a hymn to whom Cole professed love for. Sort of. The song, “Trigger Happy,” kept on taking turns:
You know that gun is loaded
Sure you do
Summertime blue, summertime blue
Yes, you know that gun is loaded
Sure you do if not for you
Love Story‘s leadoff single, “Like Lovers Do,” took him back to the top 40. Small wonder, as it ran on an arresting melody of major and suspended chords chased by a chorus of minor chords. Her was a golf-loving husband, closing in on his 40s, still writing mournful and fingerpicked ballads.
And there he went. Cole did not release another album for five years, the longest pause (still) he ever took. He appeared here and there on compilations, but he was in an experimental mood. This was learned from 2000 to 2003, when in a flurry Cole released two studio pop albums, one album of outtakes and b-sides, and one of ambient music — a first for him.
The run started with The Negatives, a one-off gloom-pop supergroup — Cole, Jill “I Kissed a Girl” Sobule, Michael “Eve’s Plum” Kotch, Dave “film composer” Kirby, and Raja “future real estate broker” Maciejack. (Really, he is. He might be the richest of any of them.) Cole’s sound regained the heft of the Commotions, with 20 extra pounds and a girdle. I mean this in the best possible way.
The Negatives’ album starts with four perfect pop songs. I immediately loved the way the fretboard scraps in “Past Imperfect” remained on the track. “Impossible Girl” was cleaner; the scraping returned for “No More Love Songs”; with “What’s Wrong With This Picture?” the arpeggiating was accented by an out-of-nowhere keyboard. It was fantastic. None of its songs became hit singles.
In 2001 came the ambient album, “Plastic Wood” (which I like but don’t relisten to often), and the helpfully titled outtakes album “Etc” (which contains a Blood on the Tracks cover that captures everything Cole adds to the singer-songwriter canon). In 2003, Cole slowed way, way down — Music in a Foreign Language was very self-consciously slow and adult. The only electric sounds were moody guitar slides that accented the soft acoustic wrist-slashing ballads. “No More Love Songs” was reworked with more warmth. As if warmth could change a line like this:
“Rather than you,” she said, “I prefer solitude.
Rather than company, I prefer cigarettes.”
Did this mark a new direction? Sort of. In 2006 Cole returned with (hold the laughs) Antidepressant, a little chippier than the last record but not straying far from its front room production style. The only difference was the humor — the title track was an entirely literal story about two sad hipsters finding each other in a cafe.
I said I’m trying to write my novel
She said Neither am I
And either way I saw you reading No Depression
You’re doing nothing I’ll come over
We’ll watch 6 feet Under
And then we’ll maybe get around to your condition
With my medication I will be fine
The courtship turned immediately into panic, and fear of commitment:
First she’s going to tire of my fixations
Then she’s going to tire of my face
I’m going to need a new affectation
I’m going to need a new one everyday
And Cole kept writing. In 2009 he released four CDs worth of outtakes, containing everything from Leonard Cohen covers (“Chelsea Hotel No 2” done up with his standard wry detachment) to Burt Bacharach covers to remixes of the singles that had not quite been hits. He followed a year later with Broken Record, which gave every confidence that he could record songs like this forever. “Do you have nothing to do on this fine afternoon,” he asked in the single, “but write?”
But you’ve got nothing today so you crank out
About a writer without ideas
And her lover she pushes away when he gets too near
You can get a beat from a broken heart
You could write the book while falling apart
You can have it all save the one you want
Going for a song