In this age of buzz-imagery as well as buzz-phrasing, a picture can be worth more than 1,000 words in defining a popular artist. Just ask Lloyd Cole, who got ripped for endorsing depression, if not suicide, by posing moodily for the cover of his 1993 CD, “Bad Vibes.”

Dressed in a dark suit, the Scottish rocker is seen leaning into the corner of a stark space, a dour expression on his unshaven face, a cigarette tightly pressed between two fingers and a streak of ashes by his untied shoes.

Cole thought the photograph was “a beautiful image for a jacket sleeve, a pure pastiche of an Irving Penn photograph” — not to mention “vaguely amusing.”

But, he said, “a number of people got on my case for trying to lay this heavy trip on them. It was a mistake opening the album with ‘Morning is Broken’ (a bitter tune), but there are some life-affirming songs on the record as well. What people get out of the photos tells you more about them than the pictures.”

Even so, it’s no surprise that Cole’s new CD, “Love Story,” which he’ll dip into at Park West Sunday, boasts languid oceanfront scenes on front and back. Times are difficult enough for acerbic, word-oriented singers like him. When an artist of his ilk gets tagged as downbeat, his audience threatens to dwindle even more.

Though the 34-year-old Cole has lived for several years in New York, where he has collaborated and become close friends with hot pop talent Matthew Sweet, his following in America has yet to approach his fan base in Europe.

“I quite often go to radio stations in the states and the guy will say, ‘So Lloyd, is this your first record?’ I’m usually not the nicest of guys when that happens, I admit.”

Cole, who has recorded three albums with his old band, the Commotions, and four as a solo artist, is especially popular these days in France and Scandinavia. He was finishing up a two-week tour of France when he was reached by phone in Toulouse.

Whether “Love Story” will raise his profile stateside remains to be seen, but it certainly reflects continued growth in his writing. In his early efforts, as he will admit, Cole tilted toward wordy excess and a collegiate sensibility fed by language-obsessed artists such as Joni Mitchell — whose lyrics captured him even when her singing didn’t.

“I always thought her voice was at odds with the way I thought her words would be sung,” he said. “When I first heard about ‘In France They Kiss on Main Street,’ I thought, boy, I’ll bet that’s a great record. But then I heard it and didn’t like it. Same thing with ‘Big Yellow Taxi.’ It’s a great song. It was such a shame this woman was singing it.”

Now, even when employing strings, Cole’s words and music are spare to the point of minimal. “Julia came; Eating a tangerine,” he sings on “Like Lovers Do,” the first single off the new album. “Friday the third; four-thirty; She tore out a page; of my magazine; then she went away; like lovers do.”

In their simplicity and uneasy evocation of familiar feelings, the words are haiku-like. True to the man fond of his “Bad Vibes” imagery, there is also an intriguing snapshot quality to them.

“I’m more interested in scenarios than stories, or staying in the middle of a story,” Cole said. “I don’t like offering conclusions or playing the artist as sage. There are more possibilities this way. People are invited to put something of themselves into the songs.”

Even if he does regard the Commotions’ 1984 debut, “Rattlesnakes,” as “a young man’s album,” he remains fond of it. He regularly uses its final tune, “Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken?,” as his set-closer.

As hard-edged as he can be — on his current tour, he has been performing Velvet Underground songs including “New Age” and “Rock and Roll” — Cole isn’t afraid of revealing a soft touch. Increasingly, he is part of a movement in British and American pop geared toward the latter.

“There’s this thing going on based on some kind of feeling that it’s not bad for a rock star to be emotional,” he said. “The guy in Smashing Pumpkins even goes out of his way to be that way. Even in a noisy group, it doesn’t have to be contradictory.”

PHOTO CUTLINE: Despite the dour expression, Lloyd Cole’s really a happy guy.

Publication: Chicago Sun-Times

Publication date: 03/11/95