Lloyd Cole doesn't consider New York City part of America.
"It's more like Cuba," says the British singer/songwriter, "sort of an island off the coast."
Cole moved to Manhattan in 1989, shortly after he disbanded Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, a group, founded with some university mates in 1979, that was best known for disarmingly simple love songs.
The Commotions, which rose to prominence in the early '80s, was one of several groups working the English indie guitar-pop sound popular then. The critical and (to a lesser degree) commercial success of the Commotions' three U.S. releases was largely because of Cole's classic songcraft and his band's beautiful, minimalist accompaniment.
What set the Commotions apart from bands like the Smiths, however, was the wry wit of Cole's lyrics. While Morrissey whined, "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now," Cole asked, "Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken?" (the title question of a powerfully honest cut on the Commotions' 1984 debut, Rattlesnakes).
Young Lloyd was hip, peppering his songs with allusions to literature and cinema. He was also flip, tossing off lines such as "I choose my friends only far too well" (from "Perfect Skin," also on Rattlesnakes).
Cole was the toast of the U.K. rock press until the media turned on him when, in his own words, "I tried to become the Raymond Carver of pop music."
The push that led to Cole's fall from grace was the 1985 release of the verbose, high-brow LP Easy Pieces. Critics viciously took Cole to task, saying he was "pretentious," "pedantic" and "arch." Cole says the experience acted as a catalyst for his evolution as an artist.
"I used to feel that I had to consume art, literature and culture generally to be able to create," he says. "I found out that I don't." The stellar 1987 LP Mainstream exhibited Cole's new economy of words--more meaning, less verbiage. Alas, it was the band's swan song.
The recently released Love Story is Cole's fourth solo recording since he canceled the Commotions. Musically, the album represents a return to his early '80s stylings. It follows a series of highly regarded experimental projects such as Don't Get Weird on Me, Babe (1991), which featured several fully orchestrated compositions.
There is no string section on the new recording. "The sound we're going for now is quite similar to the original sound we were doing in the Commotions," Cole says. Meaning mellow grooves, sparse arrangements and a wily depth that recalls Leonard Cohen. Cole comes across like a wise storyteller.
The 34-year-old songwriter married an American in 1989 and has a young son. In "Unhappy Song," he sings:
He was torn between the romance
and the mundane/
He was torn every morning/
He was surprised or he was horrified/
To find the mundane more rewarding.
Asked if "Unhappy Song" is autobiographical, Cole chuckles, then replies, "There is a part of me that does find the mundane the more rewarding. Sometimes it's a little difficult to admit, you know? It's not very rock 'n' roll."
The epitome of Lloyd Cole, grown up, is "Love Ruins Everything"; he sings of domestic tranquillity turning his "trademark frown" into "the strangest easy smile," then asks, "Where did I go wrong? Ask all my drunken friends."
Cole is quick to comment: "I still like drinking. I think drinking is fantastic, but I don't want to drop my kid when I'm carrying him around."
The lyrics aren't the only noticeable departure from past practice in Love Story. None of the new album's songs echoes the hard-edged guitar attack of previous efforts. Last year, Cole says, he reconsidered his personal strengths and weaknesses.
"I basically consider myself not very good at rocking," he explains. "I like rock music, but I've found I'm not very good at doing it myself." That's not to say there are no upbeat numbers on his latest, just that the focus is purposely placed on the words and melodies--where Cole has always shined the brightest.
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Love Story's centerpiece and first single, "Like Lovers Do," is an instantly memorable slice of pure pop that features a gorgeous weave of acoustic and electric guitars and Americana lyrics.
Cole's growth as an artist and an individual was ill-received by his longtime label, Capitol Records; he was unceremoniously dumped in the midst of the recording sessions for his 1993 LP Bad Vibes.
The split left Cole a free agent, and he was subsequently picked up by Rykodisc. "I thought it was worth trying to be with a label that wasn't a major in America," says Cole. "To be a priority at a small label might be more effective than being a nonpriority at a big one."
Lloyd Cole is scheduled to perform on Friday, November 17, at Gibson's in Tempe, with Ivy. Showtime is 9 p.m.