Lloyd Cole’s career has spanned all the way from 1984 – when he fronted the Smiths-esque jangle pop outfit The Commotions – up to the present day, where he has taken the form of a reflective, blackly comic solo artist. With this in mind, it makes sense then that his career ought to be eclectic, dynamic and, most of all, enduring.
In his intimate concert at Manchester’s Albert Hall, Cole split his set into two distinct halves: one understated set of Americana-tinged acoustic numbers, and one set with a full band, incorporating pop-rock, rockabilly, and synth-pop sensibilities (“we’re both the support, and the headliners!”, Cole quipped). Somehow, Cole made these disparate threads all fit together in an evening that progressed from being somewhat of a novelty to something much more special. By the time of the venue’s curfew, Cole had crafted a relaxed, wholesome celebration of his career thus far.
Admittedly, Cole’s acoustic set was a peculiar thing to walk into. Looking vaguely like Orson Welles’ Charles Foster Kane (wearing a shiny, white suit and with slicked back, greying hair) Cole began his set with the soulful ‘Don’t Look Back’, to a small seated audience. It was obvious from the start of the show that the singer/songwriter has changed over the decades – gone are the boyish looks of yesteryear – but what Cole does maintain is his knack for witty observations, off-the-cuff literary references and intimate portrayals of fraying human relations. Needless to say, that was a little bit more important to the crowd.
The self-pitying, self-reflective letter to an ex-lover ‘2CV’ had never sounded so raw than in this stripped-back acoustic setting, nor had the aching finale ‘Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken?’. The track is a bitter-sweet gem that has since seen a second life via Camera Obscura’s pop-song response ‘Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken’. Cole’s charm remained tangible throughout the feathery, acoustic soundscapes, and he effortlessly led the songs into each other with quick-witted, self-deprecating asides (“This one is my mother’s favourite,” he mentioned about solo track ‘Violins’; “it only took me twenty-five years to write a song that she likes”). Cole’s head, in spite of his national treasure status to those in the know, remains very much firmly fixed to his body.
The decision for a seated audience aided Lloyd Cole’s singer-crowd relations during the first half of the set, helping him to take on the feel of a storyteller imparting wisdom to a group of rapt listeners around a fire. However, it had its pitfalls in the evening’s second half. The change from the acoustic set-up to an electric one prompted a change in energy; an encouragement to the idle audience to stand up from their seats did not fare well. An opportunity was unfortunately missed here.
Fellow indie veterans James took a similar approach in their intimate orchestral tour earlier this year, roping in their seated listeners with hushed musings, before prompting the crowd to lurch upwards for 90s anthems like ‘Sometimes’, ‘Laid’, or ’Born Of Frustration’. This could have worked similarly in Cole’s favour, but he never quite reached the same zenith recently achieved by Manchester’s beloved misfits. It was a shame, as fan-favourite hits ‘Rattlesnakes’ and ‘Brand New Friend’ should have surely been impossible not to dance along to.
It was fair to say that Cole’s show didn’t exactly raise pulses, but what it did do, however, was display the overwhelming quality of the singer-songwriter’s craft. Without mosh-pits, clapping along, or drunken dancing, Cole’s barbed lyrical wit was all the more clear. Every single song was marked by a transcendent clarity. ‘Nightsweats’, taken from 2018’s LP Guessworks, rang out with the immediate intimacy evoked by its pastel-portrait LP artwork: a suffocating exploration of anxiety far removed from the bookish quips of Rattlesnakes or Easy Pieces.
2023’s On Pain was also showcased in all its icy wonder too, most potently in ‘The Idiot’, an understated, sourly comedic piece of escapist synth-pop. Synthesisers teetered with playful melancholy as Cole sketched out a plan to move to Berlin before the audience. Cole is one of the few singer/songwriters who can so effortlessly glide between tongue-in-cheek asides (‘She’s got cheekbones like geometry and eyes like sin / She’s sexually enlightened by cosmopolitan’ in ‘Perfect Skin’) to existential crisis (‘We’ll find a better speed of life in the cafes and the galleries / Just a pair of modern guys escaping history’ on ‘The Idiot’).
The night closed on the lovelorn ‘Forest Fire’, an anguished ode to twisted words and soured passions. The song echoed out with The Cure-esque guitar wailings as the audience stared forward, engrossed in Cole’s lyrical, sceptically romantic world. It seemed a fitting end to a night of moving directness and understated humbleness. Cole’s tour, whilst perhaps not exactly a spectacle in of itself, is a wholesome, wonderful showcase of a singer/songwriter’s intensely human work. Cole remains the cutting-edge indie icon that he once was – only now with even more gems in his discography to back it up.