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Lloyd Cole. Photo/Getty Images

Raking over Lloyd Cole’s career ahead of NZ Tour

The veteran singer-songwriter brings his trusty songbook, a new album and a Commotion.

“Honesty has nothing to do with it – and even if it was honest, I’d lie that it wasn’t.”

There’s a surprising brutality to the way Lloyd Cole sells himself as an artist – surprising because, from his bookish lyrics on Lloyd Cole and the Commotions’ classic 1984 debut Rattlesnakes to his experiments in electronica with German ambient genius Hans-Joachim Roedelius in 2013, it might easily be assumed he’s, well, just a little bit highbrow.

But, no. Instead, the Englishman, who has lived for years in Easthampton, Massachusetts, is almost comically straightforward. Talking from his home’s music-room attic, he’s quick to say that his US life is not forever. “I really don’t want to die over here and my wife’s aware of that – I’m only here because of my family.”

The reasons for the call are his new album, Guesswork – which features Commotions keyboardist Blair Cowan and guitarist Neil Clark, who have occasionally featured on Cole’s past dozen solo albums – and his forthcoming New Zealand tour, on which he’s bringing Clark. But Guesswork isn’t a return to the jangling guitars and blue-eyed soul of Rattlesnakes. It weaves Cole’s lyrical flourishes around his love for synthesizers and electronic music. A highlight is Night Sweats, which kicks off with layers of 80s synth-strings, whining reverb-heavy guitars and beats so 80s they should come with their own day-glo socks, before Cole launches in with “I’m a complicated mother – you knew that” and follows with the chorus “Everything in moderation, to hell with that”.

Which is where the question about honesty came from. It’s a hell of a line, after all, so where did it come from?

“I don’t think there’s a single song I’ve written that’s entirely me, but sometimes, when you’ve lived 58 years, you’ll have encountered various struggles on the way and sometimes those scenarios suit the song format … and then sometimes you just write down ‘I’m a complicated mother’ in a notebook.

“Honesty, though, just isn’t relevant – it’s all about whether it makes good music – does it make you want to listen to it again, or make your hair stand on end? Whether or not there’s any truth in it is irrelevant as far as I’m concerned. So, is that exactly me in the song? Certainly not – I’m doing much better!”

The wry raconteur is a role Cole adopts easily in his live shows. In between hits such as Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken?, Perfect Skin and Forest Fire, he’s something of a talker, and that, he says, is when the audience gets to meet the real him. It wasn’t always that way.

“The thing that has changed most for me, I think, since the early days is performance. Those performances with The Commotions were recitals, because it wasn’t my ambition to be a performer. My ambition was to be making records and, at that time, touring was just the way you promoted records.

“With albums, they pay you in advance and I’d never liked to be beholden to someone to be creative. It was only in the late 90s, when I left Universal and didn’t know what I was going to do to make a living, that I decided I had to play concerts.

“There’s something about knowing that it’s only if you put on a good show that people will come back again. It made me realise I preferred that to the concept I’d been living for the previous 10 or 12 years, so I started to become a performer.

“I wasn’t very comfortable on stage when I was younger, but now there can be times when I’m not feeling that great about life and I stand on the stage in the middle of a show and it occurs to me that it’s when I feel the most alive.”

This month’s New Zealand tour, his seventh since the early 2000s, is billed as an entire career retrospective, “From Rattlesnakes to Guesswork”. Truth be told, the joyous arrangements of his most recent songs, such as the epic The Over Under, Violins (a weird cross of Erasure and Queen’s Radio Gaga) and the shimmering Moments and Whatnot, aren’t going to work without a bank of electronic wizardry and a few more band members.

But, for now, Cole knows that people’s affection for the largely synthesizer-free music that made him stand out in the 80s, rather than his 80s-sounding new material, is what gets them in the door.

Lloyd Cole From Rattlesnakes to Guesswork is at Dunedin’s Mayfair Theatre, November 22; Christchurch’s James Hay Theatre, November 23; New Plymouth’s 4th Wall Theatre, November 24; Palmerston North’s Globe Theatre, November 26; Wellington’s Opera House, November 28; Auckland’s SkyCity Theatre, November 29 and Auckland's The Vic, November 30.

This article was first published in the October 26, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.