Lloyd Cole may have discarded his intellectual image along with the Commotions, but his solo work still struggles with pessimism. SIMON REYNOLDS talks to the man who finds optimism redundant.
Two years ago Lloyd Cole folded his band, The Commotions, after six years. A bunch of hit singles and three solidly successful albums, Rattlesnakes, Easy Pieces and Mainstream, and went into exile in New York. Now he has re-emerged with a solo album, Lloyd Cole.
Probably his best, freshest, work since the 1984 debut, Rattlesnakes, it was recorded with new accomplices Fred Maher, a member of Scritti Politti and drummer on Lou Reed’s celebrated return to form, New York and Robert Quine a legendary New York underground guitarist, most famous for playing with the proto-punk band Richard Hell and the Voidoids.
Lloyd Cole has always polarised critics and consumers alike. For some, Rattlesnakes announced him as one of the best songwriters to emerge in the eighties.
Cole was immediately lumped together with kindred spirits like Morrissey, Paddy Macaloon of Prefab Sprout, Roddy Frame of Aztec Camera, and Edwin Collins – all celebrated for having brought back a sorely missed literacy to pop.
But others vilified Cole for his literary pretensions, fondness for Americanisms, and predilection for peppering his lyrics with with allusions to totemic figures lilke Norman Mailor and Simone de Beauvoir. Does Cole harbour any regrets about his early music and the way it has saddled him with an image as a pseudo-beatnik?
“I think what I’m doing now is a lot more natural”, says Cole guardedly. “But when I started, I’d just come out of studying literature, so in a way it was natural to write like that. To hear it referred to as name dropping is a bit odd; it’s not as though I’d met Mailor ar anything. What I was doing was developing the idea of a proper noun as metaphor and simile. That’s one of the few innovations in songwriting that I’m responsible for.
“In fact, I had never even read Simone de Beauvoir. But I know what she represented as a cultural figure, so I thought she could easily be used as a metaphor. As for the literary thing…well, next to Billy Idol I look like a literary, intellectual guy. Next to the genuine article I look like a pop singer>”
Cole’s current approach to songwriting is expressed in a line from “A Long Way Down”, from the new album: “The reason it’s a cliché is because it’s true”. You get to the point in writing where the obvious is the best thing to do. I shied away from that for a long time. But I think you have to be a better writer to use the obvious, and still make it sound fresh. Maybe I feel confident enough to do that now.”
Does he feel part of a peer group of intelligent pop writers, such as Paddy Macaloon and Morrissey?
“I don’t feel I’m part of a movement so much…but I guess that the three of us have promoted the idea of sensitivity. The idea that you can be sensitive and still be a cool dude.”
The sensitivity is reflected in the healthy proportion of women in Cole’s audience. “It’s not boys’ music, that’s for sure, which I’m glad about. Certainly no-one’s gonna accuse me of being misogynist. If I’m seen as the sensitive New Man, that’s fine by me. I’ve always tried to champion sensitivity, while arguing that it doesn’t mean you have to be a wimp. But that goes back to James Dean, whose whole image was cool but not cold-hearted.”
The new album, Lloyd Cole, is not a radical departure from his work with the Commotions, but continues to explore the idiom Cole’s lyrics seem most suited to: country rock, with a tinge of blues. Cole’s forte is the evocation of a particular kind of melancholy, the kind that comes with the loss of youthful idealism, the fading of the first flush of love, relationships stagnating into habitude, dreams curdling…
“Generally my overview of life is that optimism is fairly redundant. Certainly it leads to more unhappiness than a realistic pessimistic approach to life. I don’t think I expect that much from life.”
As with Morrissey, Cole’s constituency seems to be people on the verge of leaving behind adolescence and it’s impossible dreams, and facing up to a future of settled mediocrity. In a word, studenty.
“I don’t know who exactly I speak for. The only way I can think that people find it pleasurable is to think in terms of blues. That my music’s some kind of cartharsis for them, enables them to feel better about their own lives. Blues can be incredibly uplifting even though, if you analyse it, it’s pretty depressing stuff.
Cole describes himself as an apathetic socialist – The Commotions performed benefit gigs for Red Wedge during the last election campaign. But he has always been outspoken in his conviction that politics and pop have not had an illustrious history of cohabitation.
“Well-meaning gets to be an excuse for clumsiness in writing”, he thinks. That said, he is not adverse to an occasional bout of social critique. He is adept at the vitriol-laced put-down of the materialistic, the soulless, the upwardly aspirant. “A Long Way Down”, for instance, is a morality tale along the lines of Wall Street.
“That song is basically a slow version of “My Bag” off Mainstream, except that it isn’t specifically about cocaine, just about that mentality. I wrote it for a film that never got made, about a painter from Glasgow, who gets sucked into this New York high life culture, and abandons his roots, his sense of morality, his sense of proportion”.
Despite being himself a Manhattan resident of two years’ standing, Cole does not seem to have sold his soul to New York. The nearest he has come to the high life is being photographed for a series of advertisements for Amaretto di Saronno (a sweet almond liqueur) in American glossy magazines.
“I got the equivalent of five months’ rent for five hours’ work, and at the time my cash flow situation meant it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. It didn’t do me any harm, because it was a kinda cool campaign. The sort of people I was being associated with were mostly hip, upcoming actors. I was a bit worried that I was in danger of being known principally as the guy in the Amaretto advert. But in several magazines, they ran the photo with a little biog. at the bottom. I was proclaimed the new Dylan no less than four times!”
Most of the time, Cole gets on with writing his songs in his West Village apartment, being married and pushing 30, and hanging out with his musician buddies in the local bars. “When I was younger, the idea that I could make a living writing songs and go and live somewhere like New York seemed impossibly romantic. Now it’s just my everyday life. I don’t see too much romance in my life at present.”
Publication: The Observer
Publication date: 25/11/90