NEW YORK — Most of the bookish heartthrobs who led hit ’80s college-rock bands, but who met only moderate success with subsequent major-label solo careers, have found themselves in a push-comes-to-shove situation as they hit middle age.
Singer-songwriter Lloyd Cole, 43, is one of those musicians forced to become entrepreneurs in order to survive as mature artists, having to fund their own recordings and develop a Web-based business. Cole is lucky, though, that his early solo efforts and leadership of the short-lived Glasgow combo the Commotions earned him the enduring affections of a modest but devoted network of listeners.
The Thursday night crowd at Joe’s Pub here responded warmly not only to the Commotions tunes that ended the set, but seemed to already know the songs from Cole’s intimate new solo album, “Music in a Foreign Language.” Just out in the United States, the disc has been available as a European import for a couple of years, as have two other solo sets that he has now licensed for stateside release: a collection of ambient instrumentals and an album of “lost” songs.
Armed with a philosophy student’s reading list and robust verbal flair, Cole often offered witty cautionary tales for overeducated, underemployed youth in his initial work. With an appealing bit of gray now in his voice and his hair, Cole now draws characters that have grown up a bit, too. They may still be “strung out on semantics,” but they’ve also encountered that uncomfortable place later in life when high ideals meet low realities, particularly in the realm of domesticated romance.
Cole played more than half of “Music in a Foreign Language,” with the bittersweet songs alluding to Dylan and Nabokov as they surveyed varying degrees of discontent. In “No More Love Songs,” a sharply drawn new composition, Cole’s protagonist faces his disappointed lover saying to him, “Rather than you, I prefer solitude/Rather than company, I prefer cigarettes.”
Solo tours of the past few years have made Cole a better guitarist and more confident performer, with his voice having taken on an attractively smoky flavor. The new acoustic arrangements of material from his electric band records sometimes improved on the originals. Diffuse and overproduced on record, “Butterfly” was aptly intense with just guitar and voice. Given a mock Johnny Cash intro, Cole’s acoustic take on the Commotions rocker “My Bag” was a thrilling, almost virile exhibit of wordplay.
Cole has always met the anxiety of influence head on, not only with references in his songs but by covering artists from Dylan and Leonard Cohen to Nick Cave and T. Rex. On Thursday, he played Dylan’s “I Threw It All Away” with a ruefully romantic lilt. Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel” sounds so much like a Cole song that his performances are both tip of the hat and point of pride.
With the poise of a man who has kept his beat-poet good looks, Cole was the embodiment of British charm despite the rushed Joe’s Pub format. When a woman sneezed close to the stage as he sang the wistful “Don’t Look Back,” Cole whispered “bless you” mid-verse without missing a beat. Also, in a later aside, the singer reassured the audience that, “despite what my repertoire may suggest,” he had a beautiful wife and happy children.
Publication: Newark Star-Ledger
Publication date: 12/05/04