Rock’s been literary since it got introduced to folk music in the mid-’60s, but words keep going in and out of pop-music fashion. Currently, grunge buries them, gangsta rap devalues them, and ambient won’t have them in the house at all. Perhaps because there’s not much else interesting for lit majors to do, though, the lit major singer/songwriter refuses to die. Indeed, though rightfully reviled ever since the founding of Asylum Records, the genre is as forever replenishable as, well, as rock ‘n’ roll itself.
That’s certainly true of Lloyd Cole, whose work has swung between the two extremes represented – Robert Quine guitar sandpaper, Paul Buckmaster orchestral velvet – on his last album, Don’t Get Weird on Me, Babe. As Cole admits in his promo-sheet notes to his new Bad Vibes, “Everybody hated half of that.” The album didn’t sell very well, and ended his U.S. major-label affiliation.
Vibes comes after lots of career and personal adjustments: First child born, home studio built, Rykodisc deal made. It also follows in the vanishing wake of My Bloody Valentine and its imitators, who Cole temporarily joins on trippy tracks like “Morning Is Broken.” “Have you seen the future of rock and roll?” he asks on “Seen the Future,” but at its most forward Vibes sounds like 1989: Drum machines provide trance beats, reverb and bent notes salute the Mysterious East, sounds that alternately surge and disappear evoke the dislocation of dreaming and other extra-rational states.
The album doesn’t immerse itself in such stuff, and there’s never any doubt about who’s singing: Cole’s voice and sensibility are unmistakable, and these melancholy melodies would fit on any album that’s ever borne his name. Psychedelia is a new coloration, but much of Vibes recalls Cole’s eponymous solo debut, his first album after trading Glasgow for Manhattan. Quine’s not here, but such peers as Anton Fier, Fred Maher, and Matthew Sweet are on hand, and the arrangements of songs like “So You’d Like to Save the World” and “Love You So What” echo Lloyd Cole’s offbeat, offhand eclecticism: Steel guitars squeal, a cello becomes a groove thing, Ann Charlotte Vengsgaard’s backing vocals come to the fore, fluttering strings coexist with swaths of feedback as Cole sings (in “Holier Than Thou” lines like, “We’re going down, down, underground.” There are even intimations of Cole’s original career as a Glaswegian New Dylan in “My Way to You,” a song with a passing resemblance to “I Shall Be Released.” (That may not be intentional, but “Fall Together”‘s reference to the Beatles’ “Come Together” probably is.)
Cole’s always been more interested in cool than hot, and with Weird even showed his lurking desire to become a lounge-ballad hack. That detachment is why these Vibes finally seem less bad than merely weak: Cole experiments with being both the victim and the aggressor, but brings little conviction to either role: “So you’d like to save the world/I suggest you take one person at a time and start with me,” he begins one song, then starts the next one with, “Holier than thou/Yes it’s true/I’m too good/for you,” only to switch back on the next one: “I love you so/So much/You love me so/So what.”
With a baby and a home studio, cole probably doesn’t get out as much as he did when he was a cocky young song-poet, but these new-romance and bad-love songs are too detached from actual experience. (More convincing is “Too Much of a Good Thing,” a still-in-love song that celebrates monogamy.) Though Cole doesn’t quite pull off the epic, eight-minute shuffle “Can’t Get Arrested,” these days it seems more significant that he was a bass player in his first band than that he used to cop song titles from Renata Adler. Pursuing an eccentric dub-folk-rock groove, Cole’s vibes are more funky than literary.
Publication: Washington City Paper
Publication date: 15/07/94