Lloyd Cole’s Literate Cynicism


Hmmm. It’s becoming more and more obvious to me that I missed a number of really great releases last year. Chalk my myopia, perhaps, up to my searching for a job as a cautionary measure, giving a few talks toward that end, and ending my relationship with UM for the UofC after it was all done. In the process, packing up, moving, and unpacking (still not done) severely curtailed my time for taking in much of what was sounding around me…. Yeah, right. That one works only for new artists or older ones about whom I knew next to nothing. It doesn’t work so well for musicians I’ve long admired.

Take Lloyd Cole, for example. I vaguely remember the day when I first heard a song from his debut album, Rattlesnakes, on Vanderbilt’s WRVU in 1984. Rattlesnakes CD CoverAround that time, I was so deeply into the Cocteau Twins, the Smiths and Pink Floyd, that it might have been hard to predict or understand why I would love his work so much. How much? The day I plunked down the seven and a half dollars for it (imagine paying that for a new release now), I took it home, put it on the turntable and listened to it all the way through. And then, deliberately avoiding both dinner and homework, I played it all the way through twice more. Sigh. Very few other recordings have had that effect (as did Miles Davis’s Round About Midnight, Jeff Buckley’s Grace, Stevie Wonder’s Fulfillingness’ First Finale, the Cocteau Twins’ Treasure, The Smiths’ Meat Is Murder, Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis—okay maybe there are a lot….).

There were a number of things that immediately caught my ears. Less attuned than I am now to the subtleties of sound, the words, of course, hit me. I fancied myself as somewhat learned and literate (i.e., I was a nerd), so Cole’s finding ways to insert names like Leonard Cohen, Eve Marie Saint, Simone de Beauvoir and Arthur Lee into his lyrics appealed to my inner teenaged cosmopolitan (sidenote: I probably never would have listened to and loved Lee’s band Love, especially Forever Changes, had “Arthur Lee” not been imprinted into my mind by Cole). Ditto for Cole’s having a song called “2cv” (deux chevaux). Even more his concern with language—one that produced lines that most others would consider too unwiedly for rock songs—got me. The title track, for example, begins “Julie wears a hat although it hasn’t rained for six days. She says, ‘a girl needs a gun these days, hey, on account of all the rattlesnakes.’ ” The detail in the observation as well as the lack of continuity between it and the sentence that follows made the opening immediately evocative. Later in the same song he sings, “She’s less than sure if her heart has come to stay in San Jose, and her never-born child still haunts her as she speeds down the freeway. As she tries her luck with the traffic police out of boredom more than spite, she never finds no trouble. She tries too hard. She’s obvious despite herself.” Say what? These are words by someone with the intellectual bent that Morrissey was trying to convince people he had. And, then, there are the moments where his cynicism and bitterness cut through so sharply and wittily that one has to take notice. How more incisive an angry comment can one get than these words from “Four Flights Up”: “Oh, must you tell me all your secrets when it’s hard enough to love you knowing nothing”? How much more desperate can you get than “I believe in love. I’ll believe in anything that’s gonna get me what I want … get me off my knees” from “Forest Fire”? These sound less like typical song lyrics than they do like lines from a novel in progress or the reported speech of its characters.

Such are the thoughts that came to me tonight as I listened for the first time to Cole’s 2003 release Music in a Foreign Language. Music in a Foreign Language CD CoverWhile the AMG reviewer likes this recording, in part, because it isn’t as slickly produced as others, I don’t agree with him there. I love all the records for the way they seem to have just enough of everything. True, this is much more sparse. For most of the songs, the instrumentation is barely more than two guitars and voice. When the drumming is obviously audible, it seems more an afterthought than the thing that is driving the track. And that stripping down, perhaps, makes it easier to hear how expressive Cole’s voice is and how subtly propulsive his guitar playing is. The background vocals on “Brazil” are sublimely beautiful. His re-recording of “No More Love Songs” from his own album The Negatives gives it a slightly more melancholic edge. Even as I write this, I’m also realizing that so many of the acoustic guitar sounds I love are to be found on records by him (and by Aztec Camera).

So, rather than launch into another detailed dissection of mixes, I’ll just say that I love this record for the way that it doesn’t demand deep listening. Don't get me wrong: someone analyzing the music in that way would be richly rewarded. But you can just let this record take you in, instead of trying to take it in. And I’ll add that I’m sorry I missed it. I always get a little wistful at finding a record I could have loved months or years before. Think of all the time I could have been listening to it…. Oh, well.

I’ll end with a modest request: shortly before or after you give this one a spin, give Rattlesnakes one as well. Hopefully, you’ll thank me…

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