“What a drag it is getting old,” the Rolling Stones sang on Mother’s Little Helper, a line upon which Lloyd Cole has spent a career elaborating. Almost from the first instant with his 1984 debut single Perfect Skin, Cole has been rattling off wistful meditations on the sadness of slowly surrendering one’s whippersnapperness, thereby
becoming the only performer to consider the horrors of turning 29 while still only 26 (“Life begins at 30/Or so I have been told/And I can easily believe it/The way I’m getting on”).

Every sensitive singer/song-writer needs their subject. James Taylor has autumn afternoons in New England, Leonard Cohen has the Bible and Sting wants to save the manatee in its natural habitat. In Cole’s world, loners forever drink cheap red wine and smoke too much while
inspecting their hairlines. Mysterious women drift in and out, being witchy and messing with his head.

On record, it’s the perfect accompaniment to long, dark nights of the soul. In concert, though, Cole’s audience might reasonably point out that they get enough of this stuff at home. When he reveals that the bucket of ice on the stage is to help relieve rheumatism brought on by
playing the guitar, you can see the crowd make a mental note to buy more cod liver oil. As Cole has aged, slipping into his mid-40s, his audience has too, and become comfortable, placid and cosy.

The common interests of Cole and his audience certainly make for an empathy between them during this all-acoustic show, but also for near-the-knuckle moments of mirroring, such as on one song from his latest album Music in a Foreign Language: “Lying here/Between your
progeny/And your Visa card statements . . .” Cole doesn’t help, that said, by premiering a new song entitled the Young Idealists, in which he recalls the happy cafe-habituating days of his youth when happiness
was a subsidised pint of snakebite. He then runs it into a truly horrible moment of middle-aged rock-star tokenism, a 1940s French Resistance anthem, sung in French, no doubt as a sly protest against the war in Iraq. Again, this might play to the sympathies of his soggy-liberal fans but it’s exactly the kind of worthy piousness a
younger, sappier Cole once satirised on a song like So You’d Like to Save the World.

And what was he doing playing at Celtic Connections anyway, under a backdrop of clan brooches and bohdrans? Few performers have soaked their work so heavily in the meaty juices of Americana — its motels,
late-night diners, its sleazy bars and coffee shops — as Cole. Despite studying at Glasgow University and being (by his own brave admission) a quarter-Welsh the man’s about as Celtic as a penguin; he’s precisely the type of 6st weakling, in fact, that litters the streets after rugby

At the same time, Cole’s audience has probably moved towards the calmer waters of folkism, making the pairing slightly less incongruous. These days he’s very much a cottage industry, selling his records via the internet, auctioning off bits of kit from his days with the Commotions and playing these intimate acoustic shows, of which this was slightly less intimate than usual, on account of a lingering native fondness for the man.

The well-known Commotions singles were kept for the second half. He’s an unshowily skilful guitar player, so songs such as Are You Ready to be Heartbroken, Forest Fire, Lost Weekend and How I Learned to Love
Country Music were reinterpreted with an imagination that compensated for the absence of back-up.

This meant, though, that the first half of the show was a rather featureless tundra of new songs and recent album tracks; songs which, like all his material, repay close, repeated attention but which taken en masse blur into one long symphony of elegant melancholy.

Much like being over 40, in fact, but then Cole knew that already.

Publication: The Sunday Times

Publication date: 25/01/04