“You’re quite good, you know.” My foggy memory insists that Lloyd Cole once mentioned speaking those exact words to Neil Clark, lead guitarist in his old band The Commotions. But it may possibly have been Morrissey speaking to Marr. Whichever the case, the quote applies just as well to Lloyd Cole, as evidenced by the quite good — nay, excellent — Music in a Foreign Language.

It’s been a lengthy trek for Cole, but he seems to have found his niche now. Founded in Glasgow in the early 1980s as a sizeable soul band, The Commotions quickly stripped down to a jangly quintet and released three albums of catchy, literate romantic rock before packing it in toward the end of the decade. Along the way they scored minor hits with songs like “Perfect Skin,” “Lost Weekend,” and “Jennifer She Said.”

His solo career found him coming to America, growing his hair out, ditching his razor and hooking up with a crew of New York musicians, including guitarist Robert Quine (Lou Reed, the Voidoids), drummer Fred Maher (the Voidoids), and some guy named Matthew Sweet on bass. Despite the new cast of collaborators, he continued to work in the same general vein as The Commotions, albeit with a darker, urban lyrical cast on his self-titled debut. Cole then went on to dabble in string-sweetened orchestral music (much of Don’t Get Weird on Me, Babe) and psychedelic/glam rock (Bad Vibes) before returning to his signature style on Love Story and, most recently, The Negatives. Now, sans The Negatives (his backing band from the album of the same name), Cole is very much alone on his latest, the exquisitely understated Music in a Foreign Language.

This latest effort finds Cole working in stripped-down fashion, his vocals working with the sparse instrumental accompaniment to haunting effect. These songs are some of the most gut-wrenching material he has birthed, conveying a pronounced sense of resigned alienation far removed from the romanticism of his work with the Commotions. In opening with the title track he drives this home with cold precision, declaring “Whatever pale fire I had is gone/ But you don’t want to hear that in a song” over a strummed nylon-string guitar, the chorus’s delicate la-la-la-la-las doing nothing to lighten the mood. Cole’s intent here? To deliver “Music in a foreign language/ Words that we don’t understand/ Melodies won’t come between us/ And even if you wanted/ We can’t sing along.”

At this album’s core lies a trio of very dark songs that do indeed challenge one to sing along. Over a forlorn picked chord and programmed percussive pulse, the narrator of “My Other Life” describes a horrific scene: “Clearly you can see that I am bleeding/ Clearly you can see my clothes are torn/ Clearly this demands an explanation/ Only I can offer none.” He builds the scene in coldly clinical terms: “Witnesses have placed me at the crime scene/ Forensic evidence concurs/ Samples taken from under my fingernails/ Support the prosecution’s case.” But as the lyrical tale grows uglier, the music takes on an achingly gorgeous cast, swirling synthesized strings and haunting piano crafting a chiaroscuro, starkly contrasting with the pathetic portrait painted by his words. It is at this point that I realized just how accomplished a craftsman Cole has become.

“Today I’m Not So Sure” presents a relationship in limbo, with a self-described “man in descent” questioning his ability to remain committed to his spouse. “Didn’t I promise always to/ Shelter and protect you/ Didn’t I answer ‘Yes, I do’/ Well, today I’m not so sure,” the song begins, and there is no happy resolution coming over the remaining verses. The album-closing “Shelf Life” digs into similarly melancholy territory, Cole again singing over a picked nylon-string guitar, a metronome calling out a steady beat behind him, bits of sprightly piano failing to lighten the mood. Darkness falls with the album’s final words: “No longer waiting for my prayers to be answered/ No longer waiting for my publisher’s call/ No longer charming in my reminiscence/ Only immersed in a famed afterglow/ Now the night’s drawing in/ I’m your unworthy friend/ At the ungodly end/ Of a lifetime.”

Elsewhere on the album, things are somewhat brighter, though the title track, “My Other Life,” “Today I’m Not So Sure” and “Shelf Life” cast a massive shadow over the remaining material. “Late Night Early Town” brings the album’s sole grin with this line: “Oh Los Angeles/ How do you sleep?/ You seem so full of cocaine/ And self-belief.” A stripped-down cover of Nick Cave’s “People Ain’t No Good” replaces Cave’s slurred sneer with Cole’s quiet resignation.

Music in a Foreign Language is an absolute masterpiece that eclipses anything Lloyd Cole has done before. In stripping away the musical and lyrical excesses that occasionally detracted from his material in the past, he has left nothing but his raw, beating heart. Old beyond his years and talented beyond any measure, Cole has at last delivered an album to absolutely cherish.

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Publication: Neumu

Publication date: 09/06/03