AS soon as you heard the opening verse to Lloyd Cole’s very first single, you knew that here was a performer with more than the occasional John le Carre on his bookshelves. And seven years on, at the age of 30, he still carries the cross of being labelled pompous or pretentious by critics miffed that a middle-class lad with a university education and mainstream tastes should be as adept at wordplay and name-dropping as they are themselves.

Midway through a European promotional jaunt, Cole groans quietly when confronted with the spectre of his rock press persona. ‘I suppose I may have intimidated people in the past,’ he sighs, sprawling restlessly on his hotel bed. ‘But it’s frustrating that people should think I’ve set myself up as some intellectual when actually I’m quite poorly read no Dickens, only one Jane Austen, a couple of Shakespeare.’

In 1988, four years and three albums into his career, Cole parted company with a long-term girlfriend and his band The Commotions, and moved from London to New York. ‘Neither split was easy and I was fairly distraught about my whole situation at home,’ he says. ‘I felt it was a good idea to put an ocean between me and it.’

This relocation allowed British journalists to replace the image of ‘Cole the bookworm’ with that of ‘Cole the barfly’. The singer manages a thin grin of recognition: ‘I found that if you want the city to be fast and furious to keep up with your mood, it can be,’ he allows. ‘But if you don’t want that pace, it can be a totally different place too. I don’t understand why all the New York casualties have to disappear to Woodstock to straighten out.

‘I think the city was useful in allowing me to get all the laddish rock star ideas out of my head over a pretty intense six-month period though. I was a slut for the first couple of months I was all over the place, and drunk most of the time.

‘I’d never had the opportunity for all that before and it was exciting for a while. But I believe in monogamy and, to be honest, I couldn’t really deal with being a slut. I couldn’t even handle dating two women at the same time. A year-and-a-half later I ended up married in what seemed like a good city, ‘where I’d made friends and, importantly for my career, the recording studio situation was good.’

Cole’s new-found contentment coincides with the release this week of Don’t Get Weird On Me Babe, a second solo LP which contains easily his best work. Half of the 12 consistently excellent tracks are built on the familiar brooding guitar sound that propelled old favourites like ‘Perfect Skin’ or ‘Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken?’ But it is the first six tracks, juxtaposing the singer’s familiar laconic delivery with the lush backdrop provided by a 45-piece orchestra, that prove a revelation.

Written by Cole and his long-time collaborator Blair Cowan, the songs were scored to their own basic arrangements by Paul Buckmaster, whose credits include work with David Bowie, Elton John and Miles Davis. The results are startling: intricate soundscapes full of shifting rhythms that recall the late 1960s work of such now-unfashionable balladeers as Jim Webb, Harry Nilsson or Lee Hazlewood but which avoid pastiche through Cole’s assured presence.

‘Drama that’s what an orchestra is best for,’ he claims. ‘It gives a dynamic I’ve never heard anyone achieve with samples. When the sounds swell up together, there’s a sympathetic harmony coming off the instruments that you just can’t replicate in any other way. To actually be in the room while it’s happening is phenomenal.’

Cole acknowledges ruefully that his experiment with a fuller sound comes at a time when many of his contemporaries are taking nervous first steps into the more minimal world of dance. ‘I’d love to make a record that was great and which you could dance to,’ he admits. ‘With The Commotions there were various attempts to redefine ourselves in that way, but we couldn’t do it very well so there wasn’t any point. I think it’s sad to see people who aren’t much good in that field trying to move into it.’

Instead, he is determined to overcome whatever stereotype remains of him through the strength and singularity of his output. ‘I can’t lie and say I don’t care whether or not people like my work,’ he says. ‘You want everybody to like it. But I think the only way for me to overcome the problems I still face in Britain is by making a lot of good records. Eventually people will have to give in and acknowledge me for who and what I am.’

‘Don’t Get Weird On Me Babe’, Polydor (all formats)

Publication: The Observer (London)

Publication date: 22/09/91