Posted: January 1st, 2012 | Author: admin | Filed under: Feature story | Tags: lloyd cole | No Comments »
The Long Goodbye
“I don’t want to water down my career,” says Lloyd Cole. “We all know artists who’ve gone on and on, and each album is slightly less interesting than the last until you get to a point where you don’t want to hear an album by that person anymore. I would rather get a job than have that happen.”
Well-read, wryly funny, emotionally aloof, sullenly handsome… if Cole hadn’t become a successful songwriter, helping to define college rock in the ’80s fronting Glasgow’s The Commotions, he could’ve made a charismatic English professor. Perhaps it’s still a career option he’d consider, if it weren’t for the fact that the self-described “two-time drop-out” has even less patience for campus life now that he’s reached middle age.
In 1999, the Scottish singer moved from his adopted home of New York City to western Massachusetts with his wife and two sons. His new town, though more affordable, has a heavy student population and not much else to offer. Too sleepy for the cosmopolitan songwriter?
“Actually I wish it were sleepier,” he admits with a laugh. “At 42 I’m not sure I want to be in a town full of students all the time. And if that alienates a large portion of my audience, so be it. I don’t want to be one of those people who tries to relate to youth culture when it’s not possible.”
If you’ve never heard of Cole or his work is a hazy memory to you, there’s good reason. As he admits above, his output has slowed in recent years and the albums he has recorded have been primarily released overseas and on independent labels. (The French love the stubbled melancholy balladeer.)
In the ’80s, though, Cole was a dorm-room pin-up in the States and a mainstream success in his native U.K. (“We even had teenage girls following us.”) His three critically acclaimed albums with The Commotions featured refreshingly rootsy arrangements (these were the synth-happy ’80s, remember) with Cole’s bedroom voice and allusion-heavy lyrics in the foreground.
On the band’s break-out album, 1984′s Rattlesnakes, he sang, “Lean over on the bookcase, if you really want to get straight. Read Norman Mailer. Get a new tailor.” Today, the singer who once posed with an open hardback is less comfortable calling his work “literate.”
“You don’t have to read books to listen to my songs. I’ve been saying this for 15 years, but compared to Billy Idol, I’m literate. Compared to Martin Amis, I look like Billy Idol.”
In the late ’80s, he moved to New York to launch a solo career, but never quite cracked the mainstream. He enjoyed himself, though. On 2001′s The Negatives, he reflected on those wilderness years, specifically the era of his 1990 self-titled debut during which Cole sported a greasy sheet of hair, posed for an Amaretto print ad, and, in his words, “tried to rock.”
On that song, he colors those days with a genuine affection and sense of humor: “I grew my hair. My walls were bare. I had one red wine glass. It was self-fulfilling. I had four girlfriends. I had no visible means of support. I lived on credit-card rye bread.” Then he resigns, “I guess I’m glad I failed.”
What failure has meant to Cole is a diminished fanbase, not a diminished talent. Though music trends haven’t supported the singer, he continues to progress in the classic mold of songwriters like Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon and Ray Davies. And like many of his contemporaries, he’s found a more supportive home on independent labels.
“I think a small niche of the culture that I was interested in being part of is mine now,” he says. Tired of “feeling like you have to be creative to be worthy,” he came close to quitting altogether in the late ’90s. His path out of that financial and creative crisis has yielded some of best work to date.
To pay the bills after record company advances dried up, he developed what he calls folksinger shows and used the gigs in part to workshop new songs. His career objective became preserving the integrity of his niche, even if it meant taking action through inaction.
“In my current method of songwriting I attempt to write nothing at all. And if something makes me want to stop doing whatever it is I’m doing and pick up the guitar or notepad, then I do it. But otherwise, I don’t go looking for songs.”
Still, they find him. Cole recently put the finishing touches on Music In A Foreign Language. The sparsely arranged songs showcase Cole’s strengths–the downcast lyrics, the aching melodies. (In North America, the disc will be exclusively available through Cole’s Web site, www.lloydcole.com.) The album’s title track refers to his increasing lack of tolerance for today’s rock music.
“I think as you get older you have less patience for mediocre 26-year-olds singing about their problems. But if you hear someone singing in another language you don’t have to listen to anything they’re saying. There’s something comforting about that.”
He’ll be performing the new songs along with covers and classics from his extensive catalog on his latest tour. It may be one of the last times fans can catch the songwriter in a live setting, considering he’s always prepared for what he calls the “eventuality of retirement.”
“As you get older, whether you like it or not, there’s usually somebody younger ready to fill your boots. I’m hoping that mine are so weirdly shaped that no one else would want to step into them.”