Lloyd Cole—It’s Complicated

While Guesswork is the name of his new album, it also describes what it’s like interviewing Lloyd Cole, one of the original indie darlings.  Long before Bon Iver, Sufjan Stevens  and Father John Misty had journalists fawning all over them, there was Lloyd Cole who had journalists eating out of his hand. Lavished with the highest praise from the beginning with his debut album Rattlesnakes – “a timeless pop album” (MOJO), “Rattlesnakes is a brilliant first album” (SPIN), “ the most refreshing, uncontrived gorgeous lump of gold to be mined from Scotland in ages” (Sounds), Cole’s longevity and relevance proves that the early plaudits were well-deserved.

On his new album Guesswork – itself a worthy current bookend to his ongoing career, he maintains his status as a criticially acclaimed indie darling with Classic Pop (“Guesswork’s quiet victory lies in its peace and tranquility”) , Q (“a rich, brave, eloquent piece of work”), and Spectrum Culture (“one of pop’s most underrated songwriters”) all heaping dollops of positive press.  But still, like the name of his album, he remains a bit enigmatic, and, perhaps a bit evasive.

“I’m a complicated motherfucker,” he sings on “Night Sweats”, the second track on his eye-opening and synth-heavy new album. In interviews as well, the ability to pull full and complete answers from Cole can be complicated… and a real motherfucker. He really puts a lot of guesswork in trying to understand what makes him tick.

Detailed and open-ended questions lobbed at him are often met with curt and terse replies, his answers reflecting a rather conservative approach to explanation. That isn’t to say he doesn’t have much to say. Just the opposite in fact.  But instead of lavishing long-winded and explanatory replies, he opts for a more succinct method: Answer what you need to get the point across but let the music do most of the talking.

An avid storyteller and a clever wordsmith, Cole has released a wealth of material – both as the mastermind behind his break-though band Lloyd Cole and the Commotions and as a solo artist as well. Through the years (he’s 58 years-old now), his songs and stories have gotten more complex… and with his new album Guesswork, they’ve seemingly gotten a little more personal.

But don’t accuse him of writing autobiographical lyrics.  Lloyd Cole don’t play that way.

When asked if he himself is a “complicated motherfucker” like the protagonist in “Night Sweats”, he counters, “That’s the protagonist in that song. Never necessarily me.”

In a way, why would he want to be compared to the protagonist in that song – someone who is unpredictable and refuses to limit himself? “Everything in moderation / To hell with that” he sings over a Kraftwerk-styled jaunty electronic tune. Doesn’t everyone strive for clarity and balance? “And I’m always on the verge / Of something beautiful or terrible / Or passing out and waking up / Lying in pool of sweat.” It’s this uncertainty of extremes and this vagueness of that keeps him interesting… which, again, makes the title Guesswork quite apt.

An electronic record for the most part, sometimes teetering on Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark meets Pet Shop Boys-styled 80s synth-pop (“Violins” “Night Sweats”), and other times, awash with textural sonic landscapes a la C Duncan or elbow (“The Over Under”, “Remains”), Guesswork finds Cole more introspective… not in his own world, but in the worlds of the characters he creates. The characters in Guesswork however point to a deeper and almost personal reflection of where Lloyd Cole is in his own life.  The protagonist in the opening track “The Over Under”, for example, wavers around the universal directionless narrative that as the weight of post-children life settles in and the weariness of “what happens next” comes clearly into view. “We’ve nowhere to be / We need to get going / The old ways of knowing /There’s no way to know,” he sings, with a wry sense of purposelessness.

Is this indicative of where he is in life, a 58 year-old music who is competing for streams and attention in a music world filled with faceless playlists and albums without a CD booklet to give music its context?  While understandably distancing himself from the imperfect personalities he constructs, there has to be some sense of himself in there.  Whether or not he admits to it, the lyrics on the album mirror much less characters on a larger, multi-generational scale and more people in his age group, worrying about the things that people in the 40s and 50s would worry about. “The Afterlife” exudes nihilism  – the thought  that there’s really not much sense to be deciphered by what comes next once we cease to exist.  “No loneliness / No tear’s caress / Only afterthought / After afterthought / In the afterlife,” he sings amidst a languid and lazy waltz, as if embracing the depressing thought that  nothing awaits us after death is a given – nothing more, nothing less.

But his lyrics stop at relaying any teachable moral or meaning. He’s not trying to be a role model or even a storyteller with a real discernible and straightforward story. “I don’t want songs to be didactic or have unique meanings or messages,” he explains.  Different listeners, different interpretations… all necessarily correct.” 

While the songs on this album tend to lean more toward introspection, the apocalyptic “Violins” dives deep into the visceral horror of nuclear war but he treats the effects of war with a sort of ennui.  While the lyrics offer a sobering and very disturbing image of a mother and daughter incinerated by a nuclear blast (“The missile leaves the car / Flies through the window pan / The mother and the child / Flee the ball of flame /And then we hear the siren song / Again, again, again”), he ends the thought with an apathetic attempt to shut out the world (“So we put on our headphones / And complete our retreat”. It’s blissful yet detached with soaring melodies and a pastoral synth-pop groove that’s punctuated with his smooth and unaffected vocals – a trademark he’s carried since his days leading the Commotions.

Recorded in near isolation in the attic of his home in Massachusetts, Cole worked mostly alone, crafting the electronic textures to surround his vocals. “For a while,” he says, “it wasn’t clear if the project would ever come to fruition. I’ve been an electronic music fan since hearing Fripp and Eno’s No Pussyfooting when I was thirteen, Bowie’s Low and Iggy’s The Idiot at sixteen and then on to Kraftwerk… Eventually I had to make this record, but for several years mulling the idea the task seemed too much for me to take on alone. Finally I had to. And then I got help.”

Calling on his old Commotions bandmates, Neil Clark and Blair Cowan, to fill in the guitar and synth/programming parts respectively, it was the first time since the 80s that the three had worked together. 

“Well, I’ve worked many times with both of them,” he explains, “just not both on the same record. Neil brought genuine support for the project and spent many hours in trial and error to make the songs as they are. Often, I didn’t know what it was exactly that I wanted from him, but I’d know if it was wrong. So he was patient… very patient.  Same with Blair who actually composed two of the pieces both a long time ago.”

What they crafted is an album awash in textures and cinematic soundscapes, anchored by Cole’s distinctive vocals.  From the subtle wink to David Bowie’s atmospheric synth-work of Low in “The Over Under” to the cool keyboard tones and meditation of loneliness of “The Loudness Wars”, Guesswork is a slight departure from his previous album Standards.  In contrast to Standards’ emphasis on electric guitar, Guesswork has the synths take center stage. “The system / set up I ended up using on this project took a while to put together and learn,” he says about the recording of the album. “I’m still learning actually, so I’d certainly like to get more than just one album.”

With the current arrangement of Blair and Neil back in the mix, the musical synergy seems to be taking hold. “I have ideas for a record which could start out where this one leaves off, so to speak,” he replies enigmatically.  “I’m excited to make more music. Blair, Neil and I all have tunes I’d like to make into songs in the near future.”

But first, before he launches into new material, he still needs to get this album and its promo out of his system.  Curiously, it seems to be practically out of his system already. In response to a previous quote on social media in which he said, “Career wise (ie family stuff excepted) this is the happiest I’ve been since ‘Rattlesnakes’ charted at #13 in 1984 or was it #14? This record took a lot out of me. I’m happy it seems to be doing what I hoped it would do,” he responded, “I’m not proud. I hope I didn’t sound like an old contrarian. I’m not Christian, but I do think Pride is a sin of sorts. I’m proud of my kids, my work… I’m happy with it and I’m happy if others enjoy it. When I’ve released a record, it’s not really mine anymore. It’s yours.”

A complicated motherfucker, indeed.