Lloyd Cole, same as he ever was, and glory be

January 31, 2010

Lloyd Cole is brooding, melancholy and sometimes insufferable, and his fans adore him for it.

Or here’s another summation: “Lloyd Cole is a pretentious twit — in the nicest possible sense.” That’s the opening of his entry in the revered Trouser Press record guide. It’s an observation that was true upon the acclaimed release of “Rattlesnakes” (with the Commotions) in 1984, and it’s been true of every album ever since. This is a guy who so enjoys or at least embraces his own coolly hued moodiness and artful self-deprecation that he once wrote a song of genuine astonishment upon experiencing a Monday morning in which he found himself actually “feeling all right.” It’s called “What’s Wrong With This Picture?”

Cole hopes fans will jump-start next album

Beautiful loser, Morrissey wanna-be, sullen bastard — however lovers and haters might have phrased it over the years, it all still fits. And thank God, I say. Because no songwriter birthed to the world in the mid-’80s remains as adept at eloquently and often poignantly describing the studious doubt and inherent inferiority of that fabled Generation X.

In concert Friday night at the Old Town School of Folk Music, here was a handsome old bloke tossing out tunes that once jangled and sneered and dropped heaps of very literate names. Though the laser insight of his words now travel aboard a new musical vehicle simply called the Small Ensemble — Cole on acoustic guitar and occasional banjo, plus two other acoustic string players — they can still laparoscopically revive any steadily slowing down heart. The budding underground artists heralded in his first hit, “Perfect Skin,” have gracefully grown into the new mission statement of 2006’s “The Young Idealists.” As a twentysomething, Cole wrote as if he were a jaded, middle-aged expatriate. Now that he’s exactly that, well, the well-tailored songs still fit.

The new set with the new trio rounds up old songs in an old format. After opening for himself — breezing through almost a dozen songs in 20 minutes alone — Cole & Co. felt their way through a solid stable of singles and album cuts from nearly every point in his career. When I say “felt their way,” I mean it. This is not yet a polished ensemble. Matt Cullen and Mark Schwaber appear to be fine guitar players, but the trio is clearly still figuring out each other and committing the tunes to muscle memory. There were several stumbles, apprehensive fills, sideways glances of trepidation and outright apology. Cole himself forgot his lyrics, twice. The strange, veering solos in the “Forest Fire” encore indicate much synchronization is required before they end the tour and record Cole’s next CD, to be titled “Broken Record.” (You can help fund this effort by contributing at Cole’s Web site).

The new format also has its moments of genuine zest. When Cole himself picked up a banjo, well, you could almost feel the intimate Old Town School crowd wondering just what prairie home compulsion had possessed our favorite occasionally urbane urbanite. But, my, how the next few songs cooked! “Everysong” shimmered on the lighter touch of five strings (“No use to go second guessing / Can’t cry every song”) and, by gum, turns out a banjo is just what the country-fried chug of “Four Flights Up” has needed all these years.

There was, of course, a Leonard Cohen cover, this time “Tower of Song.” The Canadian legend and the British mope have more in common than mere initials, and the latter has recorded several Cohen songs over the years. Given the nature of Cole’s reflections Friday, the song as usual could have sprung from his own pen:

My friends are gone and my hair is grey

I ache in the places where I used to play

and I’m crazy for love, but I’m not coming on

I’m just paying my rent every day in the tower of song

Mind you, this was the second song of the set. The first was “29,” Cole’s hymn to aging that he wrote nearly 25 years ago, opening with a declaration that’s never comforted anyone: “Life begins at 30.” And Saturday was Cole’s 49th birthday. So two decades in, Cole has the stones to look back at his former perspective on aging and to follow it up with a fresh new one. When he later played the title track to “Broken Record,” it was clear that he’d come full circle and that it was indeed unbroken. In “29,” all those reckless, ambitious years ago, he already was acknowledging the coming around of what goes around: “You’ve heard it all before, kid / and I’ll say it all again.” In “Broken Record,” he admits:

Not that I have that much dignity left anyway

Nor could I feign great surprise when she finally walked away

Yesterday’s lover will fall for another

and I won’t stand in her way

But we already sang that song

and she’s already gone, gone, gone

and you’re starting to sound like a broken record

So let’s keep Cole’s tradition of literary name-dropping alive and bring up Edna St. Vincent Millay, who quipped, “It’s not true that life is one damn thing after another; it is one damn thing over and over.” Because that’s what Cole’s catalog looks like. It’s the same great song over and over. So each time we need him to score and underscore another cycle of our own lives, there he is, guitar (or banjo) at the ready.

Publication: Chicago Sun Times

Publication date: 31/01/10