Lloyd Cole’s ambitions are anything but modest.
In fact, after seven years of recording, the British singer and songwriter has a singular aim – to establish himself as a performer of progressive ambitions and durable accomplishments.
“I look at the way somebody like Elvis Costello is established. Whether you like him or not, he’s there now,” Cole, 29, says. “I know that, in the encyclopedia of rock, he’s got a page, and I’ve got a paragraph, but I think that’s a realistic start for me.
“But to get to that point, you have to move. There’s no point at this stage of my career to set my sights on something easy. If I’m going to continue making records, they have to be good, not just rehashes.”
So Cole decided to shake things up with Don’t Get Weird on Me, Babe, his second album since disbanding his group the Commotions and a musical mixture that certainly echoes the title. Half of the record treads the musical ground Cole has travelled since 1984 – straightforward, guitar-oriented rock that reflects the influences of Lou Reed and Bob Dylan, with a kind of dry wit that results in song titles like She’s a Girl and I’m a Man.
But Cole intends that part of the album and his current concert tour be “my farewell to rock ‘n’ roll.” The rest of the record finds him in more lush surroundings – singing with an orchestra and penning songs that display an admiration for the writing and arranging styles of pop stalwarts such as Jimmy Webb and Burt Bacharach.
It’s a jarring change-up, one that even prodded Cole’s British record label to issue a promotional two-CD set that separates the two distinct groups of songs. But as far as Cole is concerned, no one has the right to block the new path he’s chosen.
“There will be certain people who have preconceptions about what certain kinds of music should sound like,” he says. “A lot of people associate singing with an orchestra with Barry Manilow and things like that. That’s their problem, not mine. I’m pretty confident (the album) is good.”
Cole, who now resides in New York, says the idea of pursuing a more orchestrated form of pop occurred to him while he was writing the new album’s rock songs – which he says “brought me full circle to Rattlesnakes,” his 1984 debut album.
“I felt like I was repeating myself,” he explains. “I could probably write another three or four records along those lines, but it’s almost getting too easy for me. Miles Davis said the reason he stopped writing ballads in the ’60s was it was too easy. That was happening to me, too, and when that happens it’s time to move elsewhere.”
Cole says the orchestrated surroundings – arranged by Paul Buckmaster, who’s collaborated with Elton John and Miles Davis – allowed him to explore different nuances in his writing and his singing.
“It makes for quite an interesting sonic environment for my voice,” he explains. “The juxtapositions bring out different elements of the lyrics. If there’s a sense of melancholy to be had, then when you have swelling strings behind you, people are going to notice it more.”
The form does have its limitations, however. “When I’m working with a (rock band) in the studio, there’s room for a lot of spontaneous things to happen,” Cole says with a chuckle. “You can’t allow for that with an orchestra – it costs too damn much! You can’t be making too many mistakes.”
Cole isn’t sure where his upcoming musical explorations will take him, though it’s possible he’ll collaborate with Jimmy Webb, whom he met recently in Ireland. He won’t rule out making another rock ‘n’ roll album, either, though it sounds like it may be some time before Cole’s interests in that area return.
“I always have a bunch of rock songs lying around – this time I’m gong to leave them lying around,” he says. “Maybe the next thing I do will fall into place naturally. Maybe it will be difficult. I don’t know what will happen, but I’m looking forward to it.
“And if I can’t think of anything better, then that’ll be the end of my career.”
Publication: Calgary Herald (Alberta, Canada)
Publication date: 05/01/92