“Wouldn’t it be nice,” muses Lloyd Cole as the final chords of Music in a Foreign Language die away, “if people knew that song and liked it?” It gets a laugh, but he’s making a serious point. Cole has been through some lean years since the mid-1980s, when his clever rock was the height of sophistication. Its audience was serious young men in long overcoats, who passed time between lectures in the Mandela Bar, smoking effusively while reading Sartre’s La Nausée in the hope of attracting any passing pale and interesting women. Some of those serious young men are here tonight, overcoats long since swapped for business suits.
In acoustic form, Cole’s clever rock seems less clever than it once did. If he had been smarter, he might have deployed his cinematic and literary references with a modicum of subtlety. Songs such as Rattlesnakes leave you dazed, as if Cole had spent the last three minutes alternately slapping your face with Halliwell’s Film Guide, then hitting you on the back of the head with a selection of Penguin Modern Classics. In recent years, he’s eased up on the name-dropping, but seems to have eased up on the tunes as well. There’s a reason why Jennifer She Said was a hit and Cole’s contemporary material has, as he admits, been “virtually invisible”. It has less to do with dumbing down than a paucity of decent choruses.

Happily, Cole is a far more engaging performer than his songs would suggest – wry, self-deprecating, full of anecdotes and hangdog wit – and this covers the musical cracks. You leave entertained, just not for the reasons you might expect.

Publication: The Guardian

Publication date: 28/01/04