A Guy who can sing a line like “Baby, you’re too well read” and mean it, Lloyd Cole is the intellectual in the black leather jacket (naturally, he is much beloved in France). For Cole, a provocative metaphor is the equivalent of a hot guitar lick – and very often it is.

Cole’s sleek, folk-inflected rock and literate, even literary, lyrics – coolly observed vignettes and character studies – had made him and his former group, the Commotions, the toast of the U.K. pop scene in the latter half of the Eighties. After three Commotions albums and two solo efforts, Cole’s fans remain loyal and legion – first snared by the Englishman’s elegant pop sense and held by his pleasingly pretentious poetry.

With his understated delivery, Cole is no scenery chewer – he’d rather let his (many) words speak for themselves. At the Academy, he talked football and dissed Richard Marx between songs, but mostly he just stood there, singing and looking cool. The only special effect was a miniature, sound-activated Christmas tree bopping high atop the PA stack. Cole seemed to attract an audience of similar-thinking persons – the sellout crowd stood nearly motionless during even the most upbeat rockers, although it would applaud ecstatically afterward. By the first encore, Cole had to ask everyone to quiet down so he could sing.

Despite the adulation, Cole played it safe. Perhaps because his solo work has yet to hit in America, the set hinged on favorites from the Commotions catalog, such as “Perfect Skin” and “From the Hip,” all played close to their recorded versions. In addition, the band included two former Commotions, keyboardist Blair Cowan and guitarist Neil Clark, both workmanlike players who squeezed out few sparks. Packed with excellent songs competently played, it was an undeniably crowd-pleasing show – but by taking no changes, there was as little to win as there was to lose.

Cowan’s synthesizers were hard pressed to duplicate the massed strings on Cole’s fine second solo album (titled Don’t Get Weird on Me, Babe, after a line from Raymond Carver), and prerecorded percussion tracks tied the band down to canned tempos. It was worlds away from last year’s tour, a rocking affair that featured downtown guitar great Robert Quine and bassist Matthew Sweet. The change wasn’t unexpected, however, as Cole has lately been expressing admiration for such past masters of easy listening as Burt Bacharach and Glen Campbell, and his old singsong yelp has evolved into a sultry croon. Still, there were several blatant rockers: “Sweetheart,” the radio-ready “She’s a Girl and I’m a Man” and a rocked-up “Cut Me Down.” Cole let the band stretch out a bit on “Pay for It” (dedicated to S&L scoundrel Neil Bush), but he still couldn’t hide his ambivalence about letting even a few hairs down: “Thank the Lord for mindless rock & roll,” he commented after “To the Lions.”

At peak moments, Cole would stomp meaningfully across the stage, but he seemed most comfortable in the quiet moments, as if he were scared that by rocking out, he’d somehow lose a precious self-consciousness. Like the crowd, Lloyd Cole remained a detached and cool observer – even of his own music.

Openers Grant McLennan and Robert Forster, leading lights of Australia’s late, great Go-Betweens, did a well-received acoustic set that bodes well for a possible band reunion. This being the final show of the tour, it called for Cole to bring the pair back out for a ragged-but-right version of T.Rex’s “Life’s a Gas.”

Publication: Rolling Stone

Publication date: 21/12/1991