The Thornbury Theatre is a strangely enchanting venue. I had heard much about it but tonight was the first time I had ventured there. It’s a restored art deco building with an atmosphere that is difficult to describe. It sits half way between an intimate listening music venue in the tradition of the lamented Continental Café on one hand and then on the other its got the kitsch attraction of a reception room where your parents might have gone to a dinner dance. Strange yet charming, I like the place and shall return.

There would be no dancing here tonight.

Lloyd Cole was playing solo and by that I truly mean solo, just him, two guitars and an offering of something like 32 songs (give or take a couple that were blended into medleys). Incidentally on the subject of medleys Cole explained that these hybrid performances of songs should only be played by artists over 45 as they were liable to become addictive. He has a point. In the hands of a less willing performer a medley could indeed become a deadly weapon – Cole is excused a medley or two on account of his exceptionally generous presentation of his catalogue of songs.

He enters the stage unannounced and starts singing. Two sets are presented and they are of equal weight in terms of the “hits” and the more purist-desired material. The show opens with 29 (from Mainstream), which is followed by the Leonard Cohen cover Tower Of Song and the highly desired Rattlesnakes. It was a very welcoming way to commence the show that reveals that for all of Coles protestations that he is now but a mere folksinger he still inherently understands the need to connect with an audience in a theatrical sense.

In fact it’s Coles willingness to undermine his own persona that makes the show so successful. While his songs demand to be taken seriously – and indeed there is barely a line he has written that has been committed to recording without due diligence and consideration – he remains aware that his audience perhaps takes him more seriously than he takes himself.

Thus when he announces an interval as “ a break from the oppressive quietness” and makes reference to the need to reach a particular point of “self loathing” in order to sing a song you know that he’s come to terms long ago with a inherent earnest consideration that his songs provoke.

Personally I found him very funny. Like Michael Stipe whose lyrics are so much funnier than given credit, Cole has some brilliantly surreal and silly moments. In The Young Idealists (from the aptly named Anti Depressant album) he counterpoints the culture of coffee shop politics with economic terminology more commonly found in the Financial Review. Describing Los Angeles as “so full of cocaine and self belief” is perfectly phrased and anyone who chooses to rhyme “driven to distraction” with “Scarlet Johansen” as he does in the wonderful Woman In A Bar is doing fine by me.

He states his enjoyment of beer and cleavage and explains that he lives in a big white house where it takes him all day Saturday to mow the lawn. It is a statement that he does not consider himself to be a miserable person, and its an invitation to his audience to join him in a happier place that perhaps they had expected to find themselves. He’s telling them that he wont be offended if they smile. Hearty laughter is even encouraged.
All of which would be completely useless if it weren’t for his catalogue of great songs. Cole seems to understand his place in a service industry. His performance is his service and his songs are his tools of trade and he is blessed with very high standard of equipment.

He plays songs from just about every album he has released. Rattlesnakes and Easy Pieces are well represented with the “showstoppers” like Lost Weekend, Brand New Friend, Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken and Perfect Skin, but its perhaps some of the lesser known songs that are most rewarding. The delicate Music In A Foreign Language is a gem (and features the worlds most restrained audience sing-a-long) as is the aforementioned Woman In A Bar. The ironically titled Unhappy Song plays a starring role and What’s Wrong With This Picture is another stellar moment. Undressed opens with the line “You look so good when you’re depressed” and for that alone its a highlight. For me though one of the real standouts was the relatively unsung Old Enough To Know Better (from etc) with its brutal yet whimsical look at a relationship reaching a point of tired dissatisfaction. It segues into That Boy in an uplifting way.

On the strength of this performance Lloyd Cole remains a vital artist. He’s spirited guitar player, a very appealing vocalist and a songwriter that cares about his craft. There is no reason why he shouldn’t continue to flourish as long as he desires to – and I suspect he has no reason to seek an alternative. When he sings Kristofferson’s Please Dont Tell Me How This Story Ends is without any self referential sense of trepidation. Those choosing to invest in his still to be recorded next album should not be concerned for the wisdom of their wager.

Publication: Hey Hey My My

Publication date: 06/11/09