It’s been a while since the words “Lloyd Cole” and “pop star” cropped up in the same sentence. In fact, few singers have vanished off the radar so emphatically as the one-time king of observational rock. In the mid-1980s Cole notched up a string of top 10 hits; today most of us would be hard pressed to name one or two of them. Gone, nearly forgotten – you wonder why he carries on.

Happily, Cole isn’t in the least bitter at having fetched up in pop’s twilight zone. Now resident in the United States , he contentedly puts out the occasional album and performs whenever the whim takes him, playing to a small but fiercely loyal core of diehards. There are worse ways to spend middle age.

On his new tour, Cole – paunchier than you remember but still every inch the urban sophisticate – gives his back catalogue an acoustic face-lift. This is to take a terrible gamble with your material. Stripping a song to its essence is like forcing it to stand naked before the world, every bulge and blemish exposed. You are all but inviting an audience to point and laugh.

However, Cole’s confidence in his music is well placed. Two decades on, the hits retain their sparkle. The breadth of literary and cinematic references crammed into Rattlesnakes, for example, is astonishing; you didn’t know whether to sing along or scribble notes. Ultimately, though, it was your heart rather than your head that Cole won over: the devastating chorus of Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken? would turn granite mushy.

Inevitably, there was a foray into Cole’s recent work. As any fan of a once-popular artist banished to “where are they now?” status knows, such interludes are often the perfect excuse to nip to the loo. At best the current stuff comes off like a soulless re-tread of old glories, at worst an embittered repudiation of the performer’s salad days.

It was a pitfall which Cole deftly side-stepped. While bereft of the slinky melodies and killer hooks of yore, cuts from 2003’s Music in a Foreign Language sounded wistful and affecting. Here was a singer determined to move on, although many devotees would settle for a life-time of Rattlesnakes pastiches. You left tempted to declare Cole back in business. But of course the truth is he had never really gone away to begin with.

Publication: The Irish Times

Publication date: 05/02/04