What makes a songwriter go bad? The obvious answer is that song-writing ability is inextricably linked with age – look at your record collection and see how many of the albums were written when the artist was under 25 years of age. A case in point here is Paul Weller, who was writing amazing stuff while still in his teens (The Jam), then lost it completely with The Style Council and now writes the sort of music than only people who play squash like. Another one is Alex Chilton, whose song-writing ability seemed to be in direct inverse proportion to his chronological advancement. Yet another is Paul McCartney, who hasn’t written a decent tune since his twenties; and The Stones haven’t written anything memorable since Exile On Main Street or thereabouts.
On a more general band note, count how many of a band’s earlier albums are better than their fourth, fifth or sixth – it’s astonishing in an anorak sort of way. You could blame fame and fortune (look what it did to bloody Rod Stewart, who used to be great when he was younger) or simply growing up (but that doesn’t account for Neil Young). Scan through any 100 “Best Of” singles, albums or whatever and use the age index; the under 25s win out all the time.
Which leads us nicely on to Lloyd Cole.
Time was when he and his Commotions were the talk of the taverns for their impossibly good, post new-wave, Byrds-inflected tunes and pretentious arty lyrics, but now he’s just hopeless. Back in the 1980s, though, he was a college circuit darling whose first two singles, Perfect Skin and Forest Fire set the scene for what is still his best work, Rattlesnakes (1984) and for a while he even threatened Morrissey, in some quarters, as a lyricist. Much was made of his “intelligent” words, but then the only real competition at the time was Kajagoogoo and Duran Duran, so that was no real benchmark. It’s somewhat irksome, looking back, that some people swooned over his words only because he’d mention a writer like Norman Mailer in his lyrics (and rhyming it with “tailor” was never really a good idea). Staying in the top 20 for an indecent amount of time, the Derby-born, Glasgow-raised Cole was launched as a broody and enigmatic artist with the talent to match the cheekbones.
There was ample evidence on Rattlesnakes that Cole could have been a contender. Songs like Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken? (which was memorably covered by Sandie Shaw) and Down On Mission Street saw him beginning to shake off his Lou Reed-inspired vocal delivery and the vaguely jangly guitar backing was a sign of musical styles to come.
The quality control was still at work on the follow-up album, Easy Pieces, which delivered two of his biggest hit singles in Brand New Friend and Lost Weekend and gave him his first top ten album hit. Sent out on the road for interminable tours, his album-a-year work rate was disturbed, and on the brink of a breakthrough in America, where he was signed to the Geffen label, he had the misfortune to eventually release a more-than-troubled third album in Mainstream. What used to be a fluid and reasonably articulate writing style was replaced by something a bit more self-conscious, and the only songs to save an otherwise sorry affair were My Bag and Jennifer She Said. With the chart placings dipping and inter-band friction beginning to manifest itself, he disbanded The Commotions and set off to New York to pursue a solo career, a phrase which has now become a bit of a Spinal Tapism.
The resultant albums, Lloyd Cole, Don’t Get Weird On Me Babe, Bad Vibes and Love Story were not without their moments but even their best tracks couldn’t compete with the freshness and energy of his Rattlesnakes days. Still gamely carrying on and still touring, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that he could come back with a bunch of songs that would drag Sandie Shaw out of retirement; but it’s unlikely.
On the cover of the just-released Lloyd Cole: The Collection (a greatest hits round-up) it’s less than surprising to see that of the six songs printed out on the front cover under “Including!”, five are from his days with The Commotions, even though the album itself features 12 songs from his solo albums (which is stretching the greatest hits concept a bit) to just nine from his band days. Still, in those nine songs, you’ve got a mini-classic in its own right.
Publication: The Irish Times
Publication date: 15/01/99