Disclaimer: I thought I’d posted this already, but found it in my Recently Opened folder, leaning against a Word doc called ‘Pub Rock Wish List’ and an Excel spreadsheet charting which of my neighbors have been parking illegally. No I’m not very popular, thank you for asking.
My sister was seatbelted into the passenger seat of my car as I nudged my front bumper toward I-40. “Hand me my phone,” I said, immediately tailgating a van with a multicultural stick figure family smiling from the back window. “We need some music.”
She rolled her eyes hard enough to loosen both retinas. “Great,” she said. “I hope it’s something obscure and British.”
It was. I played Lloyd Cole for the rest of the afternoon, singing along with ‘Sean Penn Blues’ and ‘From the Hip’ while she alternated between clawing at the armrest and trying to guess what four digits would unlock my phone.
A week ago A month ago FOREVER AGO two friends and I drove to the Arts Center in Carrboro, North Carolina, which is stashed at the far side of a strip mall, a Fleet Feet and a pizza joint away from its PBR-soaked sibling Cat’s Cradle. The Arts Center is a venue that seems to lend itself to whispering to the box office staffers and sincerely apologizing if your Chucks squeak on the hallway tiles. It’s intimate and understated, which made it the perfect spot for a Lloyd Cole show.
He’d driven himself from Florida earlier that day, arriving without an opening band, backing musicians or any pretension whatsoever: just before the show, he’d apparently been outside, walking past his own promo pics and slipping unnoticed between people who held tickets with his name typed down the center.
Cole, his acoustic guitars and his Dad Jeans took the stage at eight on the dot. I hadn’t seen him live before and was a little unsure what to expect. His lyrics tend to be full of empty hearts and empty houses and women who left him before he had the chance to leave first, while his album covers are a collection of increasingly furrowed eyebrows and tightly clenched cigarettes. If the Misery Scale stretches from zero to Morrissey, I expected him to be on the far right side.
I was wrong. “You probably think I’m a miserable bastard,” he said, before apologizing for spending almost thirty years glaring at us from LP covers and CD cases and the other side of an iTunes library. He repeated sentiments like that in his soft lilt, insisting that he was totally well-adjusted and well-loved before launching into another song about picking his way through the wreckage of past relationships.
And that’s the skill that Cole has. He can talk about being a happily married father with two kids and “a Downton Abbey haircut” and a lawn that he mows on long Massachusetts weekends before completely—COMPLETELY—selling you on a song that’s so vividly written, you can smell the cigarette butts and self-loathing in his bachelor apartment.
His voice is deeper and richer than it was during the Commotions era, back when he sang about Rattlesnakes and asked one of rock’s best rhetorical questions. At times, I thought he sounded like Roy Orbison, which meant I would periodically whisper “Hey, doesn’t he sound like Roy Orbison?” to the unfortunate people on either side of me, staring at them in the reflected stage lights until they agreed with me. He filled the setlist with songs that covered his entire career (including some unreleased ones), threw in a “Famous Blue Raincoat” cover before transitioning seamlessly into his own “Butterfly” and did a pretty spectacular Tom Waits impression before closing with “Unhappy Song.” (“I have very few regrets,” he said. “Except maybe inviting schoolchildren to sing on this record.”)
The songs I remember (and put into a Spotify playlist) are:
Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken?
Like Lovers Do
Brand New Friend
Like a Broken Record
Don’t Look Back
Pale Blue Eyes (Lou Reed cover)
Famous Blue Raincoat (Leonard Cohen cover)
Kids Today (Currently unreleased)
(Well, these and several others that I might recall if I’d been paying attention instead of raising my eyebrows and mouthing “Roy Orbison” in my friend D’s general direction).
Cole has a new, largely crowd-funded record coming out in June but there’s plenty of time to catch up on his back catalog between now and then. To me, he doesn’t write songs as much as he sings short stories (which seems appropriate for a guy who turned a throwaway Raymond Carver line1 into an album title). If you want to spend the evening immersed in Lloyd Cole 101, I’d drop the needle—virtual or otherwise—on Don’t Get Weird On Me, Babe (in its entirety), the 1984-1989 Commotions anthology before skipping around to standout songs like “Writers Retreat!,” “Like Lovers Do” and “Morning is Broken.”
1This is the story I’ve always assumed it was from but I could be wrong because I’m not a reliable journalistic presence like Wikipedia or CNN or something written in a Subway bathroom.
You can get a beat from a broken heart/
You could write the book while falling apart/
You can have it all save the one you want/
Going for a song