By Brian Smith

What’s the greatest lyric from a pop song circa 1995? That’s easy: Livin’ on juice/Eatin’ out tuna cans/Mobile home/With my dairy queen/Tied me a knot/She had to cut me loose/Now I’m lookin’ at you/Like lovers do …

In few words, you get so much. The lines are sublime in scene-setting simplicity, and big — like how a good short-story writer clips a phrase. You can see the narrator’s cornered, trailer-park life, his fleshy wife (or maybe “Dairy Queen,” a sugary metaphor of American culture), who he inevitably loses, and you see how he, like any drunk, is destined to hit the repeat button again and again — it’s a loopy cycle in a troubled existence … but is it?

Now slide said refrain into an acoustic-driven pop song, inside a swoony sing-along melody, and you have Lloyd Cole’s “Like Lovers Do,” an aching slice of proletarian longing that actually charted in the UK, his only solo hit.

But Cole, as it is with many folks in every facet of life, never gets his due. Maybe he got more glossy time than he deserved eons ago fronting UK hit-makers the Commotions, but he wasn’t a good writer yet; he was too young, too affected and too overreaching.

Beginning with his 1989 self-titled debut solo album, Cole — as it has been pointed out — shaped characters the way Raymond Carver (to whom Cole tipped his hat) did, in airy yarns about those stalled in drink, sadness, anger and yearning. Cole inserted irony and levity and winked to George Jones, to Scarlett Johansson; his became storytelling that fixed beautifully to his agreeable talk-y croon. By 2007, the gifted Cole had aged gracefully within his songs; he placed self-loathers and angels on barstools in wry suburban gothics and then in bittersweet epistles to the married, broken and confused. It’s astounding what this songwriter could (and can) pull off inside four minutes.

Hardcore Cole fans know that. They know that you either “get” the singer or you don’t. (The LC enthusiast is like one of those oiled-up barstool gents yapping drunkenly at you about something you haven’t a clue about, because, for one thing, you’ve never heard of this Cole guy. And then when the fan mumbles something about “the new Dylan” you inevitably shrug him off.)

Designed for fans only, Cleaning Out the Ashtrays is a four-disc (that’s right: four — Cole coughed up many great albums since 1989) set of b-sides, toss-aways, demos, outtakes, coulda-shouldas and alternate mixes of “hits,” including “Like Lovers Do.” What’s incredible is this collection could actually work as a Cole primer because, of the 59 well-recorded songs included, there are only a couple stinkers (the by-the-numbers “Everyone’s Complaining” is one).

Some songs could’ve been singles but instead never saw light of day. What happened to “Millionaire”? — Her dad’s a big-shot politician/Her mother, she is a judge/And I’m no-good-for-nothing/And I’m the one that she loves … That line would’ve fit swimmingly on Tim Hardin 2, and Wilco would’ve killed for the chorus. Single b-sides and covers of T. Rex, Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen show records Cole weaned on and the versions here are atmospheric little stunners.

There are fat pop hooks and hearty nods to folk, rock ‘n’ roll, country, ambient and power pop (look at who guests: Matthew Sweet, guitar-hero Robert Quine, Jill Sobule and others).

The CDs particularize Cole’s solo career — and time with his band the Negatives — in “phases”: his journey from major to minor label, from rock ‘n’ roll crooner to folk singer. The 36-page booklet’s self-penned “essays” are funny, insightful and self-effacing, and detail where his head was during the recordings; there’s even a little meditation on the fall of the music industry and how it applied to Cole. It’s all housed in a lovely box decorated with classic Cole minimalist portraiture-photography.

On one hand, Ashtray’s a tidy nod to the singer’s ego, but it isn’t; better to have Cole’s backward-gazing “leftovers” that can stand alone than to suffer a new album of abominations by some buzz-y, blogged-up singer-songwriter, hastily dubbed “the new Dylan.”

Here’s a guy who lived his book and record collections and whose seeming adoration of F. Scott’s East Coast got him at a tender age — Cole’s suit coats and looking the part of an Ivy League-ish uptown author. So it probably makes sense the Scotsman spends less time in bars, calls Massachusetts home and plays the occasional game of golf. For him, that’s probably better than the other option. … But damn if he’s still unknown and didn’t write some of the best songs of our time. Go to

Brian Smith is the features editor of Metro Times. Send comments to

Publication: Detroit Metro Times

Publication date: 01/04/09