Is Lloyd Cole the king of self-criticism?

I extend compliments to Lloyd Cole; he shrugsthem off. And so it goes throughout a half-hour conversation that confirms his recent reputation as one of the most unnecessarily self-critical interviews in all of music.

He didn’t used to be this way. When he was the voice, face, and songwriting phenomenon that fronted Lloyd Cole and the Commotions from 1984 to ’89, Cole spoke as though he felt as focused, driven and confident as the band’s first two masterful albums, Rattlesnakes and Easy Pieces, suggested he was. He looked like a matinee idol, sang like a savvy British undergraduate who imagined himself to be some holy amalgam of Bob Dylan and Tom Verlaine, and wrote songs of such melodic richness and lyrical wit that many expected him to go the distance of his then-foremost peer, Morrissey.

Today, Cole is older (obviously), grayer (distinguishedly), and seemingly all but convinced that his time as a commercial and critical force to be reckoned with is finished. Morrissey has just released the worst album of his career; Cole, meanwhile, has just released his best in a decade, Music in a Foreign Language (One Little Indian/Universal). Sparse, stately, and often heartbreakingly sad, Cole recorded most of it alone and unplugged in rural New England, where he moved recently with his wife and two children after almost 15 years in New York.

“My aim with this record was very modest-it’s a very small record,” he explains, speaking from an office he keeps near the family home.

“I didn’t have any inclination to make a rock record. I’d left New York and I wasn’t writing what I felt were rock songs; in fact, I sort of gave up writing, to be honest. I gave up writing as a professional writer and I just let songs happen if they came to me, but I didn’t go chasing them. These are the songs that I came up with in moving out to the country, where I was able to rent a studio space and have the kind of freedom that I couldn’t possibly have in New York.”

A cover of Nick Cave’s People Ain’t No Good says much about the emotional tenor of Music in a Foreign Language. Like the Cave album from which that song originates, The Boatman’s Call, or certain late-career albums of Dylan and Leonard Cohen, Music… is sung from the perspective of a former eternal adolescent who is quietly shocked (and possibly suspicious) about having finally acquired a comparatively settled, grown-up life. This is adult pop music, as in wise and reflective; but not adult, as in dull and conservative.

“I wish I were settled,” Cole counters, gently chuckling. “I’m not quite there yet. But, coming from having been a professional artist as a young man, there is definitely a suspicion when people are content with their situation. I am feeling my way into this different part of life. I’m embracing it. I’m certainly not rejecting it.”

That said, Cole isn’t resistant to revisiting his younger self each night of his current solo acoustic tour, in which Commotions-era favourites will be dusted down to the delight of the longtime faithful. In the UK, where Rattlesnakes remains an epochal ’80s pop record, the Commotions will reunite this autumn for a handful of sold-out gigs to commemorate the album’s 20th anniversary.

“I try not to think too hard about what it was that I was thinking about when I wrote them,” he says in reference to early classics like Perfect Skin and Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken? “My feeling is that when somebody buys one of my records, the songs are theirs-they’re not mine anymore. I’ve put them out in the public domain, effectively, and they belong to everybody now. And if I can sing them without it being a hardship for me and enjoy the communal aspect of me singing it, then that’s great.

“There are, obviously, a lot of songs that parts of me still relate to the person that wrote them, but there are a great many that I feel like the dad of the guy that wrote them.”

Fortunately, Cole laughs when he says this.

Publication: Westender

Publication date: 06/17/04