Has Lloyd Cole really fallen so far off the radar? Yes, he has. The man is still best-known for his first album, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions 1984 indie masterpiece, Rattlesnakes. In America, he was a college radio staple during the early 1990s, and his 1991 solo album Dont Get Weird on Me, Babe, is still highly regarded. But after losing his major label record deal after 1995s Love Story, he all but disappeared.
In 2000, Cole released an album with a new band called the Negatives, then spent the next decade as many of his dethroned indie rock peers did. That is, he remade himself as a folk artist who could tour on his own with an acoustic guitar and a low budget. Cole also released a couple of do-it-yourself, home-studio albums. He retained a loyal cult following, though 2006s Antidepressant was anything but, suggesting Coles wallowing in relative obscurity was finally getting the better of him. Also in 2006, Cole was the subject of a high-profile allusion in the form of Camera Obscuras single Lloyd, Im Ready to be Heartbroken. That the reference was to a 22-year-old highlight from Rattlesnakes must have been very bittersweet for Cole. He had become a blast from the past.
So, he followed another strategy that has become popular among yesterdays roster-purge casualties. He asked his fans to make advance payments to help finance the recording of a new album. With a modest yet workable budget in place, he was able to recruit a band and record in a commercial studio. Broken Record is the result. First released in September 2010 in Europe and through Coles website, the album is a welcome surprise and a return to peak form that many thought he would never attempt, much less succeed at.
The North American version of Broken Record is identical to the European release, and thats no bad thing. Each of the 11 songs bears the mark of a careful craftsman whos also allowed some fun back into his work. Theres a bit of a Nashville feel throughout, with some well-placed pedal steel and rich harmony vocals. The country-western influences are more overt on the barroom stomper Westchester County Jail and laid-back two-stepper Rhinestones, which bears some reselmblance to the title track from Rattlesnakes. Some artists go Nashville to try and cover up for the fact theyre washed-up. But Cole, recording in Manhattan and near his Massachusetts home, never hints at that kind of desperation.
Broken Record hints at a couple other natural influences. The swaying, waltz-time opener, Like a Broken Record, has a timeworn, Its the End of the World/Relationship and I Feel Poetic vibe. Its like a great latter-day Leonard Cohen song without the cheesy Casiotone production. And theres some Dylan in the gentle folk of Man Overboard and wiseass rocker Thats Alright.
At heart, though, this album is all about Lloyd Cole. And thats what makes it so great. It offers the best of what you probably liked about him in the first place. When you get back from the writers retreat, I wont be waiting, he says on the ultra-catchy single Writers Retreat!. Classic Cole. And the worth-repeating lyrics are all over the place, too, with Cole trying to come to grips with maturity and recalibrated dreams. And, of course, difficult relationships. You say well get a little plot of land, he claims on Thats Alright, build our own damn French farmhouse / Theres no depression in France / Theyre too busy with the romance. At times Cole has sounded like hes trying too hard, but here youll be reminded why he was once a serious rival to Morrissey in the fields of self-deprecating wit and literary name-dropping.
The band, by the way, is great, too. The overall feel is still very clean, closer to the well-mannered, adult alternative sound of Coles 90s work. But the playing is too good, too invested, to sound dull. Some old, familiar faces are here, including drummer Fred Maher and ex-Commotions keyboardist Blair Cowan. Cowan, by the way, provides the wonderfully jangly, carefree music for the throwback indie pop number Oh Genevieve. Relative newcomers, guitarists Mark Schwaber and Matt Cullen are exemplary.
Broken Record didnt mark a commercial renaissance for Cole in Europe, and wont in the US, either. But you feel it really wasnt meant to. It was meant simply to get Cole out of a bit of a funk, and turned out to be one of the best records hes ever made. Maybe you were right maybe Im all dried up inside, Cole ruminates on the wonderful ballad Why in the World?. Lets just put it this waythose cash-advancing fans made a great investment.
John Bergstrom has been writing various reviews and features for PopMatters since 2004. He has been a music fanatic at least since he and a couple friends put together The Rock Group Dictionary in third grade (although he now admits that giving Pat Benatar the title of “first good female rocker” was probably a mistake). He has done freelance writing for Trouser Pressonline, Milwaukee’s Shepherd Express, and the late Milk magazine and website. He currently resides in Madison, Wisconsin with his wife and two kids, both of whom are very good dancers.
Publication: Pop Matters
Publication date: 10/05/11