This article originally appeared in The Herald newspaper (Scotland) on June 21, 2013, under the heading HAIL THE ROCK STALWART WHO IS MAINTAINING HIGH STANDARDS.
Lloyd Cole has created some of pop music’s most conspicuous scenarios.
Over 30 years, his literary rock dispatches have variously chronicled walking in the rain with Jesus (Brand New Friend), and undertaking illness-plagued stopovers in the Netherlands (Lost Weekend), and to this vivid litany we can now add the youthful rite-of-passage that is crashing out in someone’s bath.
Cole’s new solo LP, Standards, contains a swaggering rock memoir called Women’s Studies, on which the Derbyshire-born, US-based pop seducer croons, “To complete my education, I had to wake up in your bathtub.” Well, we’ve all been there. “I don’t think I’ve woken up in that many bathrooms,” he laughs down the line, “but I’ve certainly done it from time-to-time.”
Standards’ blend of classic American rock ‘n’ roll and bookish, brooding country pop echoes Rattlesnakes, Cole’s highly acclaimed 1984 debut album with The Commotions, who formed in Glasgow in 1982. Women’s Studies in particular harks back to vintage Cole: its debonair rock is laced with intellectual cultural references (Kafka, Josef K), entwined around nods to his time as a philosophy student in post punk Scotland (Fast Product, Josef K), and rife with suggestions of mild licentiousness (abetted by the wry, ambiguous song title).
Cole’s canon has long been the subject of women’s studies. Tori Amos rendered his 1984 suave-rock thesis, Rattlesnakes, as a haunting piano-pop lullaby; Sandie Shaw amped up the euphoric jangle of 1984’s Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken; and local indie dreamboats Camera Obscura, fronted by Tracyanne Campbell, went one better: they penned the greatest answer song of all-time in its honour (Hey Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken).
Does Cole think that the ambiguity in his songs enables such striking and convincing re-animations? “I hope so,” he nods. “I think about things like technique and how I want to write, and although I try not to be too self-conscious during the process, the one thing that’s probably always in my mind is that I want the song to be more of a scenario than a story. I don’t really want a beginning and an end, I want people to find their own ways to understand it – I don’t want the book to be closed.”
This sense of vivid yet open-ended scene-setting and lyricism runs throughout Cole’s work – from 1985’s guitar-pop jaunt Lost Weekend (“It took a lost weekend in a hotel in Amsterdam and double pneumonia in a single room”), through the coital alt-country of 1995’s Like Lovers Do ( “Julia came, eating a tangerine, Friday the third, four-thirty”), to his knack for penning some of pop’s most arch and memorable couplets, as epitomised on 1984’s yearning axe-pop strut, Perfect Skin (“she’s got cheekbones like geometry, and eyes like sin, and she’s sexually enlightened by Cosmopolitan”) – and it’s furthered on Standards, perhaps most notably on Myrtle and Rose, a porch-swing hymn that hangs on the line, “the longer you were gone, the less the longing.”
Such poetic instinct had Cole hailed as a Caledonian Dylan in the 1980s and Bob, it transpires, inspired Standards, too. “I heard that last Dylan record [2012’s Tempest] and I just thought, ‘god, if he can do that when he’s 73…’ – and clearly he doesn’t care how old he is, I don’t think he even knows how old he is,” Cole laughs. “I thought rock ’n’ roll was something that belonged to my past, but I suddenly realised, you know, maybe I’ve maybe been a bit overly concerned about what’s age-appropriate for the last few years. And I think it’s easy to do that, especially when you see people of my age  making a right arse of themselves – getting mohawks, that kind of thing – and that is a worry, you know? But seeing Dylan do it, I just thought, ‘oh, why not?’”
And so Cole (re-)embraced rock ‘n’ roll. Yet while Standards’ fired-up Americana is at slight odds with the down-home country-folk of Cole’s previous studio album, Broken Record (2010), both bear his sonic insignia, which chimes with something Cole once said about aesthetic being more important than musical, or technical, ability.
Does he still subscribe to that theory? “Absolutely, aesthetic is far more important – always,” he nods. “I mean, there’s plenty of guile and technique in there, but there’s no showboating. Someone like [Commotions bassist] Lawrence Donegan is a great example of that. A lot of people used to think that he was like the weak link in The Commotions, in terms of musicianship – when in actual fact that was me – but Lawrence’s aesthetic was so honed, he knew exactly what music he liked, he knew exactly what his vibe was, and that was so important. I think his bass playing on our records is fantastic.”
The Commotions split up in 1989, but they reunited for a Rattlesnakes 20th anniversary tour in 2004, and that very first album – and Scotland in general – never seem far away on Standards. (Indeed, former Commotion and longstanding Cole ally Blair Cowan plays keyboards on the new LP). Cole recently wrote an article in which he said that his first two years as a student in Glasgow shaped his life.
Was it the place, the time, or the people? “It was everything, really,” he says. “I can’t imagine how it could have happened anywhere else – not even close to the way it panned out anyway – because Glasgow was so particular at that time. If you wanted to go to Nico’s [the Commotions’ bygone Sauchiehall Street hang-out], if you wanted to get a girlfriend, you had to be doing something – you couldn’t just be a slacker. You had to be trying to be a pop singer, or a sculptor, or have your own exhibition. There was no room for passengers.
“That kind of peer pressure was incredibly helpful to me,” Cole reflects. “I knew I wanted to be a pop singer from when I was about 13, but being in Glasgow? That was the catalyst. I’m really not sure what would have happened without it.”
Standards is out now via Tapete; Lloyd Cole plays Oran Mor, Glasgow, on October 21, 2013.
SIDE PANEL: Top 5 Lloyd Cole LPs
Lloyd Cole and the Commotions – Rattlesnakes (1984)
Urbane guitar-pop calling-card and Scottish pop classic that references Joan Didion and Simone de Beauvoir. Brilliantly bookended by Perfect Skin and Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken?
Lloyd Cole and the Commotions – Easy Pieces (1985)
The Commotions’ second album, and Cole’s biggest-selling to date: furthered his knack for learned yet chart-friendly anthems, largely thanks to centre-pieces Brand New Friend and Lost Weekend.
Lloyd Cole – Lloyd Cole (1990)
In which Cole shrugged off his intellectual persona, moved to the US and channelled his inner Michael Hutchence (long hair, carnal rock impulses) to convincing effect.
Lloyd Cole and Hans-Joachim Roedelius – Selected Studies Vol 1 (2013)
What initially seems an unlikely pairing – pop scholar Cole with Cluster’s krautrock pioneer Roedelius – makes sense in light of Cole’s 2001 ambient collection, Plastic Wood: it won him a fan, then a friend, in Roedelius. The duo pledged to work together, and lo: this instrumental tech-opus was born.
Lloyd Cole – Standards (2013)
Eleventh solo studio album, and a swaggering-rock return to form that pays homage to Blondie, Nick Cave and Television and includes contributions from Commotion Blair Cowan, Joan (As Policewoman) Wasser and Cole’s guitarist son, Will.