It’s been a bumpy road on the way to making the definitive Lloyd Cole album, as Cole himself will acknowledge.

“I’m forever making mistakes,” says Cole, 34, with a rueful laugh. “There was a large part of my personality in (my) late 20s that felt I should be starting to reinvent myself at every turn. I think that was because I was hugely influenced while growing up by Miles Davis and David Bowie, who were constantly changing, and they formed my impression of what a musician should be.”

Beginning in 1984 with his first group, the Commotions, the Scotland native developed a literate, post-collegiate style of chiming, folk-based guitar rock stuffed with wordy narratives and references to poets and philosophers.

As a solo artist, he veered from orchestral arrangements on “Don’t Get Weird On Me, Babe” (1991) to hard-rock tunes (“Sweetheart”) on his self-titled, 1990 solo debut. With “Bad Vibes,” released domestically in 1994, Cole’s increasingly fussy experiments with song form and production all but obscured his identity.

“My wife kept telling me the album didn’t sound like me, and she was right,” Cole says. “There were moments on that record that I was trying very hard not to sound like myself, because I was so insecure about my talent. I tried to push myself in directions I had no business going.

“But,” Cole adds firmly, “it will be the last super-insecure record I’ll make.”

Cole’s new release, “Love Story” (Rykodisc), is modest in comparison to the ambitious scope of his recent efforts, but it’s also his most consistent and potent album. Its straightforward title, a departure from Cole’s normally ironic approach, is the first indication that the singer-songwriter isn’t playing around anymore.

“Ultimately, I’ve discovered it’s best to be like Van Morrison, who just makes Van Morrison records over and over again,” Cole says. “But I had to go through some tough hoops to get to this stage.”

“Love Story” began as a loose, “Highway 61”-style jam session, with Cole throwing together a bunch of musicians in his new home of New York City. “It was a foolish mistake,” he says. “Spontaneity was my ambition, but I found you can’t plan spontaneity.”

Instead, Cole went back to a more intimate setting, by playing most of the instruments himself alongside his Commotions-era sidekick Neil Clark, and adding a couple of downtown ringers — percussionist Fred Maher and guitarist Robert Quine, who had worked on earlier Cole albums.

The record’s stripped-down arrangements, built around Cole’s acoustic guitar, focus attention on how economical his songwriting has become over the years. Built around the striking image of a holdup, the opening “Trigger Happy” comments on the cockiness, wonder and tragedy of youth, from an adult perspective.

“I wrote it after I heard Suede’s song ‘So Young,’ and I realized I no longer got it,” says Cole, the father of a 3-year-old son. “I found that their self-confident attitude did nothing for me, and that I must be completely out of touch because of it.

“So the song became a way of confronting that gap, from the perspective of an older person looking at a generation that has lost hope in many ways, that has no future other than crime. And I think about the strangeness of seeing myself still in this industry, which appeals so much to the young.”

Perhaps that’s why Cole’s new album has such resonance. With its understated, emotionally direct commentary on how people interact, “Love Story” is a statement that could apply to any generation, not just the one Suede addresses.

Cole headlines Sunday at the Park West.

Publication: Chicago Tribune

Publication date: 03/11/95