The English singer-songwriter steps away from the laptop and into the studio with a band for the first time in a decade.
Has Lloyd Cole really fallen so far off the radar? Yes, he has. The man is still best-known for his first album, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions' 1984 indie masterpiece, Rattlesnakes. In America, he was a college radio staple during the early 1990s, and his 1991 solo album Don't Get Weird on Me, Babe, is still highly regarded. But after losing his major label record deal after 1995's Love Story, he all but disappeared.
In 2000, Cole released an album with a new band called the Negatives, then spent the next decade as many of his dethroned indie rock peers did. That is, he remade himself as a folk artist who could tour on his own with an acoustic guitar and a low budget. Cole also released a couple of do-it-yourself, home-studio albums. He retained a loyal cult following, though 2006's Antidepressant was anything but, suggesting Cole's wallowing in relative obscurity was finally getting the better of him. Also in 2006, Cole was the subject of a high-profile allusion in the form of Camera Obscura's single "Lloyd, I'm Ready to be Heartbroken". That the reference was to a 22-year-old highlight from Rattlesnakes must have been very bittersweet for Cole. He had become a blast from the past.
So, he followed another strategy that has become popular among yesterday's roster-purge casualties. He asked his fans to make advance payments to help finance the recording of a new album. With a modest yet workable budget in place, he was able to recruit a band and record in a commercial studio. Broken Record is the result. First released in September 2010 in Europe and through Cole's website, the album is a welcome surprise and a return to peak form that many thought he would never attempt, much less succeed at.
The North American version of Broken Record is identical to the European release, and that's no bad thing. Each of the 11 songs bears the mark of a careful craftsman who's also allowed some fun back into his work. There's a bit of a Nashville feel throughout, with some well-placed pedal steel and rich harmony vocals. The country-western influences are more overt on the barroom stomper "Westchester County Jail" and laid-back two-stepper "Rhinestones", which bears some reselmblance to the title track from Rattlesnakes. Some artists go Nashville to try and cover up for the fact they're washed-up. But Cole, recording in Manhattan and near his Massachusetts home, never hints at that kind of desperation.
Broken Record hints at a couple other natural influences. The swaying, waltz-time opener, "Like a Broken Record", has a timeworn, It's the End of the World/Relationship and I Feel Poetic vibe. It's like a great latter-day Leonard Cohen song without the cheesy Casiotone production. And there's some Dylan in the gentle folk of "Man Overboard" and wiseass rocker "That's Alright".
At heart, though, this album is all about Lloyd Cole. And that's what makes it so great. It offers the best of what you probably liked about him in the first place. "When you get back from the writers retreat, I won't be waiting", he says on the ultra-catchy single "Writers Retreat!". Classic Cole. And the worth-repeating lyrics are all over the place, too, with Cole trying to come to grips with maturity and recalibrated dreams. And, of course, difficult relationships. "You say we'll get a little plot of land", he claims on "That's Alright", "build our own damn French farmhouse / There's no depression in France / They're too busy with the romance". At times Cole has sounded like he's trying too hard, but here you'll be reminded why he was once a serious rival to Morrissey in the fields of self-deprecating wit and literary name-dropping.
The band, by the way, is great, too. The overall feel is still very clean, closer to the well-mannered, "adult alternative" sound of Cole's '90s work. But the playing is too good, too invested, to sound dull. Some old, familiar faces are here, including drummer Fred Maher and ex-Commotions keyboardist Blair Cowan. Cowan, by the way, provides the wonderfully jangly, carefree music for the throwback indie pop number "Oh Genevieve". Relative newcomers, guitarists Mark Schwaber and Matt Cullen are exemplary.
Broken Record didn't mark a commercial renaissance for Cole in Europe, and won't in the US, either. But you feel it really wasn't meant to. It was meant simply to get Cole out of a bit of a funk, and turned out to be one of the best records he's ever made. "Maybe you were right…maybe I'm all dried up inside", Cole ruminates on the wonderful ballad "Why in the World?". Let's just put it this way -- those cash-advancing fans made a great investment.