Lloyd Cole’s Standards is literate and engaging, with pop music hooks deserving of attention.
21 June 2013
Lloyd Cole is a British musician living in America, so there's some irony in that it's taken over a year for his latest album Standards to be released in the US, having been available in Europe since June 2013, but better late than never. Perhaps to make up for this, Omnivore Records have released a limited clear vinyl as well as a CD version for the American market.
At the time of the European launch of Standards, Cole admitted he felt marginalised by the recording industry, and hinted that perhaps this could be his last attempt at a traditional, commercial release. Despite this, the album was partly financed through a non-traditional but increasingly popular method of raising funds: pre-sales to fans. But if America is the mainstream, Standards should appeal; it is well produced and full of pop music hooks deserving of attention, making the issue of commerciality not about Lloyd Cole but instead about a landscape in which the internet has almost certainly wrecked havoc upon the way in which musicians, writers, movie people, porn stars, get paid.
It is indeed a hard world where those who are not million dollar sellers risk ending up in the ghetto of a do-it-yourself cottage industry, and disheartening that an album like Standards could be considered a relatively obscure release. However, it could also be the case that a more literary songwriter like Cole is unlikely to be a big seller because, well, most people don't read books anymore. Bob Dylan, as an example, is one of the most literary songwriters we have, but at a guess he makes more money from his back catalogue and concerts than his new releases.
Apparently, it was Dylan's 2012 album Tempest that inspired Cole to write and record Standards, taking it as a "kick up the backside" to make less "age appropriate music". This translates as Standards being a looser, more electric rock-orientated album than quieter, acoustic predecessors. We've also got a distinguished band, with Matthew Sweet on bass, Fred Maher (who has worked with Lou Reed and Scritti Politti) on drums, Joan Wasser (Joan As Police Woman) on piano, and assorted ex-Commotions and others in the line-up.
Fortunately Cole doesn't attempt to sing in an American accent, but the song-writing is more informed by American influences than anyone or anything British. Overall the album is dark, dramatic, urgent, and you could draw the unnecessary and unproven conclusion that in some way Cole is in deep water personally.
Opener "California Earthquake" is a cover (written by folk/country/bluegrass musician John Hartford), and features some ground-shaking piano chords and strong, deliberate chord changes as the earth shifts beneath our feet. This runs on to the novella-like "Women's Studies", which details the twists and turns of a relationship on an American campus: "These rented room and bachelor's degree / It's a Penguin classic scene/ Broken spine and faded green." It's spirited and energetic, with a lot crammed in to what is quite frankly a mouthful of lyrics: "Yes, I wrote my dissertation / on the barstools of your neighborhood / But the bars were filled with lawyers/ filing action two by two / Through the valley of the women / That I am not married to." More importantly though, the lyrics are engaging, funny and slightly desperate, a little like modern life.
"Period Piece" is a warm, jangly look back at youth and is reminiscent of Cole's early work with the Commotions. The atmospheric accompanying video by Kim Frank employs Cole's son William to wander around New York and fall in love with a nice looking bohemian girl – "Oh Hansa my lover / Where will your gaze fall now?" "Myrtle And Rose" looks back at a doomed relationship, and Cole's lyrics mix the ancient and the modern to great poetic effect: "Now, who should be the one to come a' striding down my street / To what do we owe this apparent sense of urgency? / And I should be the one touched by your very presence, dear / The longer you were gone the less the longing."
"No Truck" is possibly a departure for Cole, in that it sounds like one of Wilco's very best songs, both instrumentally and thematically. Despite the weary resignation with nature, the track is a great success due to some great guitar playing. "Blue Like Mars" is further downbeat and misanthropic ("Doesn't it stink to be human? / Fallible, weak, so tiresome / How could a god create a beast so low?"). It is, however, weirdly uplifting, as Cole frets about lawyers (again) and the future (generally). Specifically this may be Cole's response to the banking crisis ("Brokers and lawyers in the back rooms / Briefcases filled with profane sums"), but magnified to an overall sense of doom. The synthesizer is a nice touch, emphasizing Cole's trouble with modernity.
"Opposites Day" is a witty, push-me-pull-you take on the aphorism that opposites attract, with a punk-ish backing suggesting we shouldn't believe anything the narrator is telling us. "Silver Lake" and "It's Late" slow things down to a more moderate pace, both deep cuts, heartbroken, lonely, bedraggled. The latter has the beautiful lyrical pairing of "if you're looking for trouble, tonight / I know where the trouble's going to be tonight".
"Kids Today" is a wry take on a common conversation; Cole humorously mixes up periods of youth culture, be-bop, heavy metal comic books, Queens of the Stone Age, the Lindy Hop, jitterbug, only to conclude after all that the modern world is not so bad and there's nothing wrong with the kids of today. There is a sense of development, in that Cole realises he no longer needs to raze the suburbs, and a final understanding that there's joy to be found in raging again something, anything, to serve a purpose: It's all to get the girl. Very impressively he also manages to sing something about post-ironic ennui and cross-dressing in a Vivienne Westwood shirt.
"Diminished Ex" provides an answer to all the cleverness that has proceeded: Aiming a little too high has led to diminished expectations, possibly not only in a relationship but also in a career. But quite frankly by the end of the record, it seems to have been worth the trip, if not for Cole then for the listeners. Perhaps an elitist view is that Cole is too high-brow for the masses, but six hundred pre-purchasers say differently, and fifty million Elvis fans can't be wrong. Oh yes, oh no, Standards is one for the ages.