Four CD treasure-trove of unreleased & rare gems from Rock’s Mr literate.

Too ambitious for the shackles of the indie ghetto and far too subversive for ‘Now’ compilations, like many a quintessential English Songwriter, Post-80’s success, Lloyd Cole did the obvious thing, and left to seek home and fortune (as everyone from Ray Davies to Morrissey seems to) in America. Cole’s is a name that gets unjustly missed out of the obvious pantheon of this fair isle’s most talented wordsmiths and song-writers. OK, so Superstardom, chart-placings and infamy may too have eluded his solo travails, but while other significant songwriters of his generation are content either in retirement, or worse, creative retirement, Cole has amassed an impressive, diverse body of work.

This beautifully packaged and chronologically sequenced boxset takes us on the whole Cole solo journey to date, via the back-roads, taking in long deleted B-Sides, alternate versions and previously unreleased originals and covers. From the shimmering, melodic rock of his early solo years to the brilliantly claustrophobic digi-folk of his recent few releases, it also serves as a great way to get (re)acquainted with one of pop music’s most consistently thrilling writers.

Testament to a period of immense creativity and urgency, standouts come thick and fast through the first volume. Robert Quine’s fluid guitar lines (which become a welcome staple for much of the material here) become synonymous with the reflective, polished mood and some lost classics in the shape of ‘Mannish Girl’ and ‘The ‘L’ Word’ are unearthed. In fact there’s a wealth of early material that would have made impressive singles, never mind half-forgotten B-Sides. Elsewhere ‘Wild Orphan’ & ‘Everybody’s Complaining’ (written with tongue-in-cheek for the left wing Red Wedge campaign in the 80s, principally with the intention of annoying) sound like strong Commotions material, a return to the studiously sly literate musings he began his career with.

Disc 2 treads around a slightly more fallow creative period of career feet-finding, covering ‘92-‘94. Alternate mixes and versions of the ‘Bad Vibes’ material show different sonic paths opening up, sometimes hampered by time-worn production values, but some fascinating B-Sides are more than worthy of reappraisal. ‘For The Pleasure Of Your Company’, a deliciously dark-lit proposal of a song, is a melancholic cocktail of reverb, tremolo & longing. Subdued before some unspeakably heartbreaking piano lines turn it momentarily into the most beautiful thing on earth. Elsewhere ‘Radio City Music Hall’ (‘you just saved my this may not be what you had in mind…’) is vintage Cole. Vibrant, cynical, strong of melody, heavy on dry humour, and equally weighty with self-deprecation.

The muse had clearly returned with an overwhelming zeal by ’95 for the evocative and crafted masterpiece, ‘Love Story’. Alternative versions offer fresh perspective, while the off-cuts from the period are worthy of the entrance fee alone. ‘The Steady Slowing-Down Of The Heart’ being a superbly crafted, understated song charting the pitfalls of modern existence. With a soft country lilt, and an incisive acerbic lyric that seemingly only Cole can pull off.

After the lush pop of ‘Love Story’ and an all too brief phase of rocking out with The Negatives in 2000, rather than playing the industry game, Cole retreated to making Solo albums on pretty much a ‘needs must’ basis and solo in the most austere sense. Purely DIY & often recording straight to a Mac using spare, muted acoustic instrumentation (often just guitar, piano and minimal percussion). The technological and emotional starkness of the 2003-06 material sounds wholly individual and actually lets the strength in Cole’s writing take the starring role. ‘Antidepressant’ off-cut ‘Coattails’ with its woozy chord changes and talk of ‘waste-paper basket diaries’ is the late standout of the box and brings us somewhat up to date.

Being a writer of such dexterity, cover material sometimes seems superfluous, and there are some throwaway attempts at Bolan, Bacharach and Lou Reed here, however the other Cole staples (Dylan and Cohen) are dealt with deftly here via The Negatives’ 2 versions of Bob’s ‘If You’ve Got To Go, Go Now’ (in both English and French!) and Cohen’s ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’, which is transferred to a jangling 4/4 pop gem, without losing a grain of intent.

As an ‘alternative’ CV ‘Cleaning out the Ashtrays’ is a pure joy to dive through and a thoroughly impressive document (each chapter features dryly insightful liner note commentary from the man himself).

This ‘lost’ music argues, often quite convincingly, that Lloyd Cole is one of the finest, and mightily talented, singer-songwriters of the past 25 years.

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Publication: Americana UK

Publication date: 07/03/09