Lloyd Cole was one of those artists (Suzanne Vega being another; see here for that particular story) whose music accompanied me through my student years. This is no great surprise, of course, since Cole was one of the quintessential British student favourites of the 1980s. Along with groups like the Cocteau Twins, whom I also loved, and the Smiths, whom I greatly disliked, Cole’s three albums with the Commotions must have drifted from more cheap stereos, down more hall of residence corridors, than any other records from that era.
As always, I was playing catch-up. I didn’t cotton on to Cole until 1987’s Mainstream, doubling back later to Rattlesnakes and Easy Pieces. Mainstream seems to be the least regarded of the three, but it’s always been my favourite, being the one where Cole cast off much of his hipster jangle and turned towards a more mature, sombre form of songwriting. And in “From The Hip” and “29” Cole produced what I still think are his two greatest songs. Wistful, troubled and achingly tender, they flagged the direction in which his music would go in later years.
The 1990s was a decade of two halves for Cole (he would no doubt prefer a golfing metaphor to a footballing one, but I know little and care less about the sport). After putting out four fine albums in the first half of the decade, he then released no new material at all in the second half of it. Those four records, though, make up a body of work that for my money is even stronger than the Commotions records. The wit and sparkle were still there, but they were tempered by a certain melancholy and by a leaner, more organic sound that I found, and still find, immensely appealing.
I’ve never exactly got on with Lloyd Cole live, though. The first time I saw him would have been in 1990, when I took my then girlfriend to see him at the Dome in Brighton. I made the mistake of booking front row tickets at this seated venue and was expecting to be able to sit there and watch the gig in tranquillity, not bargaining on the entirely understandable and predictable behaviour of the majority of the audience to rush to the front. I remember thinking that while the performance itself was fine Cole suffered from a distinct lack of onstage charisma, something I’ve also felt every time I’ve seen him since.
The late 1990s must have been a lean time indeed for Cole, as I recall seeing him play a lacklustre solo set to a non-paying crowd of pissed-up expats in an Aussie bar in west London around that time. Thankfully, matters had improved by the next time I saw him on the Commotions reunion tour in 2004, when they played the whole of Rattlesnakes to a large and appreciative audience. Cole managed to elude me from that day until earlier this week, when he rolled up in Vienna with his Small Ensemble.
Once again I had no problems at all with the performance. Cole is a beautiful singer; his voice has this amber quality that, in the pinsharp acoustics of this space, was immediately and deeply affecting. His texts lift the songs away from the humdrum confessional sphere and towards profound emotional territory, while his guitar and those of his two bandmates (who occasionally turned to banjo or mandolin) sparkled like sunrays on calm water. Between songs, however, he was dutiful and perfunctory, only getting really animated when sharing some private joke with the other two. The old routine about having a new album out (“and it’s available just over there!”) was dusted off numerous times and quickly became tiresome, while other attempts at humour fell totally flat: “we could have brought someone on tour with us to tune our guitars, but then we’d have to sit down and eat with him every night” – yeah right, Lloyd, whatever.
At the end of the day, then, it’s a good thing that Lloyd Cole is a singer and not a stand-up comedian. His songs have that rare, precious quality of being beautifully crafted yet fizzing with warmth, energy and good humour. And with a total of 28 songs receiving an airing tonight (although nothing from Mainstream, sadly), no-one, least of all me, could complain of being short-changed.