Songwriter strives for strong tunes
July 4, 2019
Revisit hits from Lloyd Cole’s brief period as a British pop star in the mid- and late 1980s and you may be shocked at how fresh they still sound.
Cole’s band, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, bridged the gap between the New Romanticism of the first part of that decade and the jangle pop of the last.
As a young songwriter, Cole shared qualities with his countrymen Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Paul Heaton, and Dave Rotheray. William Ruhlmann of Allmusic.com likened Cole’s combination of catchy music, low-key vocals, and somber lyrics to “sugarcoating cyanide capsules.”
Cole’s first songs were simultaneously ingratiating and difficult, hook-laden and spike-laden. It’s why they still have the power to surprise more than 30 years later.
Refashioned as a solo act
At a certain point in his career, Cole largely remade himself as an acoustic solo artist. It is that Cole who will visit the B-Side at One Lucky Guitar on July 14.
Cole said he became a troubadour by necessity.
“I found myself at the end of the ’90s without a major label for the first time in Europe and with no real desire to be with one either,” he said in a phone interview. “I wasn’t really sure I wanted to make records anymore, but I had two kids.
“So I learned to be a solo performer,” Cole said. “It’s nothing I ever wanted and dreamed of being when I was a younger man. But I went out and I made some money and I brought it home. I learned to be a (solo) performer and, thank God, I learned to enjoy it. I love it.”
Cole describes being on stage as “weird” and also as “probably the most alive I feel in my life these days.”
Singing, at 58, the hits he made as a young man isn’t as difficult as one might imagine.
“I’m lucky in that I wrote quite a few songs in my 20s and 30s from the point of view of older people,” Cole said. “I was sort of obsessed with getting old when I was younger. There is something bittersweet and ironic about being onstage and singing about a washed-up 55 year old now that I am 58.”
A little popular
For quite a while now, Cole has sustained his career by being “a little bit popular in a lot of places.”
“I am not sure it is lucky or it’s a curse,” he said. “Maybe it would be better to be really popular in one place.”
At a time in music history when some famous musicians are deciding not to record new songs because they can no longer make much money off them, Cole continues to create music that challenges people in places where he is a little bit popular.
Luckily, people in places where Cole is a little bit popular like to be challenged by him.
His new album, Guesswork, which will be released July 26, is mostly electronic. The debut single, “Violins,” wouldn’t sound out of place on an Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark album.
“It’s my first attempt for a very long time to sort of bring together the two types of music I am interested in: electronic music and songwriting music,” he said. “There’s no live drummer. I play a lot more synthesizer than I play guitar on the record. It’s concise in some places and pretty expansive in other places.
“It’s an environment my voice has never really been in before,” Cole said.
Cole teamed up with two founding members of the Commotions for the record: guitarist Neil Clark and keyboardist Blair Cowan.
It was the first time those three men had recorded together since the album Mainstream, which was released in 1987.
There is a chance that Cole will tour in the fall with something resembling a full band, but it’s more likely that he and Clark will end up adapting songs from the album for acoustic guitar.
The prospect of adapting fully arranged songs for a solo setting was daunting for Cole at first, but he came to an understanding about the process.
“Eventually, over the years, I just found that if it’s a strong song, you can pretty much take away the arrangement and it will still be a strong song,” he said. “And if the song isn’t strong, don’t play it.”
Writing until the well runs dry
In midlife, Cole rededicated himself to strong songs.
“The idea of writing a song just for the sake of writing a song,” he said. “I’m not interested in that anymore. I’m also not interested in making an album to meet a contractual obligation. I look back at some of the music I did when I was in my late 20s and early 30s and there’s some pretty sloppy songwriting in there.
“I get away with it because I’ve got a voice and I kind of pull it off,” Cole said. “A lot of songwriters get away with it. (Bob) Dylan gets away with it. Shane MacGowan gets away with it.”
As he grows older, Cole wants to be more like the late Leonard Cohen.
“He never tries to get away with it,” he said. “He always finishes the song. He works on the song until he believes it’s perfect. I know I still need deadlines to help me do stuff like that. But I am a just not interested in just adding to my canon or my body of work or whatever you want to call it.”
Cole thinks the whole notion of “writer’s block” is juvenile because it presumes that a writer is entitled to genius that he is denied access to for some reason.
There is nothing natural about being a writer, Cole said.
“I think writing is not a normal state,” he said. “I think we have to force ourselves into an abnormal state to be writers. The natural state for humans is to be a reader or a listener.”
The prospect of “drying up” creatively doesn’t worry Cole.
“Eventually we empty the well and there’s a point where it’s finite and maybe there’s nothing more,” he said.
Cole, who likes to let notebooks full of ideas simmer as slowly as they need to simmer, said he sees no correlation between the effort put into writing a song and the quality of that song.
“I don’t worry about it anymore,” he said. “Lou Reed was pissed off that everyone liked ‘I Love You Suzanne’ because it only took him five minutes to write it. He shouldn’t have been pissed off about that. I have also written songs that took me a whole year. And five years later, you look back and say, ‘Well, that was a (expletive) year wasted.’”
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