Old Lloyd Cole was never a merry old soul. Two years ago when he was fronting the Commotions, he made it his business to display an unflinching sulkiness, the result, some believed, of his having read too much. His songs did an amount of intellectual name-dropping and kept up a conversational flow which, unfashionably in rock music, approached the condition of articulacy. Cole, meanwhile, looked pretty surly about everything: an eternal student, grown too big for his books.

The recent album, Lloyd Cole, his first since leaving the Commotions behind, suggests that these days Cole is slightly less inclined to furrow his brow, and goes so far as to include a song (“No Blue Skies”) employing the line “baby you’re too well read”, a sentiment it would be impossible to imagine the younger Cole entertaining. His current image has more to do with hard living than stiff reading. On the cover, sprouting a vigorous stubble and some lank locks, he stares out like someone suffering acute withdrawal pangs: this is a man who hasn’t touched a library in months.

What Cole is pushing is not so much a new direction , more a new directness. Hence, presumably, the tape which played as the lights went down: while the band assembled in the gloom, we were treated to the breathy writhings of “Je t’aime”. Cole interrupted this with a raucous rendition of John Lennon’s “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?” Neither of these songs are exactly reluctant to grapple with the specifics, and Cole (traditionally inclined to call a spade a garden implement) seemed to be giving their straightforwardness a wistful look.

Not surprisingly, the old material (he moved abruptly into the Commotions’ standard “perfect skin”) was re-shaped to bring it in line with the new desire to get tough -Cole’s way of marking the distinction between his old and new selves was a matter, more than anything, of generously twisting the volume knob. He spent much of the first quarter of the set crouched over his amplifier, torturing the controls into yielding feedback in whines and honks. To supplement the barrage, the band contained two further guitarists, commissioned to break into solos at the conclusion of choruses, during instrumental passages and at pretty well all other times. Consequently, the patient, clearly enunciated arrangements of the album emerged here as something approaching an electrical temper tantrum.

Cole, though, seemed in equable spirits. You would never expect to see him swing about the stage like an elasticated car ornament, but he allowed himself a certain amount of clowning, chivvying his partners along, covering an Elvis Presley number and another by Lou Reed, the obvious model for his semi-spoken vocal delivery.

But it was probably the perversity of Dylan that he was thinking of when he made the decision not to perform “Forest Fire”, the song you could safely assume everyone in the audience had a sizeable desire to hear. The old surliness showed through again; if it would have been predictable to play the song, there was a sense in which refusing to perform it was more so.

Publication: The Independent (London)

Publication date: 02/03/90