WHEN Lloyd Cole pushed off to New York it seemed reasonable to fear the worse, and when he produced his new set of publicity photos it seemed the fears were justified. The cool, well-spoken and well-read balladeer who had peppered his debut album Rattlesnakes with gently charming songs and mildly annoying cultural references (remember ‘She looked like Eve Marie Saint in On The Waterfront’?) had gone off to check out the West Side for himself, and now looked like the sort of character one tries to avoid in the subway. Unshaven, wild-eyed, mildly psychopathic this didn’t look the face of a man who was trying to revive his career after an increasingly predictable spell with The Commotions.

Appearances are thankfully deceptive, for his first solo work is his best since that debut six years ago. His backing musicians include drummer (and co-producer) Fred Maher and guitarist Robert Quine, who have both worked with Lou Reed, and bassist Mathew Sweet, who has joined the changeable celebrities in The Golden Palominos.

Right from the start, they charge into the mostly laid-back, introspective material with a rare confidence, balancing crisp guitar lines against a moody swirl of Hammond organ, shifting gear for a chugging, wide-screen ballad setting, or showing their New York underground roots with a pounding muted rocker. They are so good that they could easily run away with the album, and it’s to Cole’s credit that his personality dominates. As ever, his vocals are pleasant and carefully articulated, and his influences are never hidden. Recording in New York has obviously made him think of Dylan, and the opening title, Don’t Look Back, or references to Bleeker Street in the second track, hint at what’s to come.

The best Dylan steal is hidden away on the second side, in the jaunty and witty Undressed, which starts with a burst of harmonica that could be the intro to I Want You, but develops into one of Cole’s more memorable tributes: ‘You look so good when you’re depressed, better even in your current state of undressed.’ It’s a clever technique, giving an established style a laid-back Cole once-over, and he applies it to grand mainstream balladry, as on No Blues Skies, to country-rock on Ice Cream Girl, and even to pounding rock riffs as on Sweetheart. The mood may alter little, but the settings are wonderfully varied. This is a far better album than expected.

Publication: The Guardian

Publication date: 15/01/90