In 1984, Lloyd Cole came seemingly out of nowhere to release what turned out to be the most fully realized and endlessly satisfying folk-rock record of the decade in Rattlesnakes, and he has spent the rest of his career trying to live up to its promise. He’s never entirely succeeded. Whereas that album delivered a convincing variety of narrators offering compellingly contrasting viewpoints, opening up evocative scenes as surprising as they were observant, and suggesting new import for heretofore unrecognized nuance, subsequent albums have tended to feature the same first-person voice singing more and more direct lyrics reiterating the same stories of heartbreak, disillusion, and dissipation—captivating and universal themes, to be sure, but deserving of a three-dimensional rendering Cole seemed less and less reliably capable of offering. Cole seemed especially adrift in the ‘90s, experimenting with a variety of sounds and styles but never quite finding the formula to cash in on the alternative-music bubble, a flash in time that might have been his moment. (He came closest with 1990’s Lloyd Cole, which featured his best collection of songs next to Rattlesnakes and the same group of New York studio musicians who helped propel Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend album around the same time.)
With Music in a Foreign Language, he’s made the inevitable singer-songwriter move to acoustic folk, drawing on songs refined during a recent string of intimate solo shows where he does the VH1 Storytellers routine—telling stories, being self-effacing about growing old, and reviewing the highlights of his career while mixing in new work and appropriate covers—and as a result of this close contact with a devoted core of extremely receptive fans, the album has a consolidating, retrenching feel. No limits are tested, few risks are taken, and no long-held expectations are thwarted; it’s as though Cole has embraced diminishing expectations, accepted the size and nature of his audience, and he is now gracefully trying to accommodate them and avoid anything challenging or alienating. This graceful relaxing into one’s accomplishments and giving them an already achieved ceiling is typically deemed “mature”, which could perhaps be understood as “no longer relevant to the unconverted”.
But that doesn’t mean the album’s not enjoyable. The ten songs on this collection are extremely consistent in melody and mood without being monotonous, despite being nearly impossible to distinguish from one another (except for the Nick Cave cover “People Ain’t No Good”, which leaps out from prior familiarity). All the songs are hushed, pensive, and more or less percussion-free, with delicately picked guitar quaintly ornamented by steel guitar and gentle string arrangements scored on computer. The melodies are familiar and pretty—perhaps pretty because of their comforting predictability. It all goes down as easily as a buffered aspirin, and it soothingly encourages a vaguely brooding mood without really prompting any lacerating self-examination. It permits you the space to mope.
Cole restricts his voice to the reedy range he can handle and he makes no flights of simulated passion, but he often sounds as though he could benefit from a little Afrin to decongest himself. Everything about the uncluttered musical arrangements seems designed to give you little to consider but the words. For this strategy to work, the lyrics have to be rich with potentiality, yielding up new shades of meaning and new levels of interpretation with each listen. It sometimes helps if the lines are loaded with images or ambiguous referents that admit of several possibilities, each opening a whole new sphere of contemplation, or metaphors and similes that work in several directions at once. It doesn’t even hurt if they are a little obscure, per Bob Dylan’s apocalyptic songs from the ‘60s (or his hellfire and brimstone tracks from his born-again days in the late ‘70s).
Cole has opted for none of these approaches here. Rarely imagistic or obscure, he tends toward straightforward, explicit metaphors (“Could you be my alibi / Could you drive my getaway car / Get me out of jail free?”), or blunt, direct pronouncements (“I hear they have the good drugs in Brazil / Maybe I’ll take some”), or all-embracing apostrophes (“Oh, Los Angeles, how do you sleep / You seem so full of cocaine and self-belief?”). These can be powerful, particularly in contrast with the decorous music behind them, but they leave little room for play in the listener’s imagination. But this has its advantages. Because the lyrics require little decoding, one’s intellect doesn’t intrude on the process of vicariously identifying with the current of emotion running through these songs, allowing the “I” and the “you” so frequently invoked to be readily replaced with figures from one’s one life. And Cole achieves that sublime level of specificity that is only detailed enough to encourage you to fill in the rest with what you know without ever invalidating or obviating any of your own treasured insights. You feel Cole is confirming half-realized impressions of your own rather than imposing his own thoughts on you. This is no small accomplishment, and it shows just how subtle and generous his songwriting has become.