Settled isn’t the best word – it could suggest complacency or resignation, when the opposite is true – but there’s something to the line that Lloyd Cole has settled comfortably into middle age.
Witty, frank, and sometimes brutal, but also compassionate and aware, for the past 15 or so years Cole, now 58, has chronicled marvellously the slippages and solipsisms of men of a certain age, of a “man on the edge of time”.
Missed cues at bars, crossed-purposes conversations with colleagues, sparks reignited but snuffed out before use, the furrowed brow of the perplexed - you’ll find them all in his songs.
But there’s also the satisfaction of those no longer needing to be approved and now feeling like the answers are known, the snark of the once-deferential grown tired of it, and the acceptance of contradiction.
“I’m a complicated motherfucker, you knew that.” he says with smudged belligerence over a mix of Carlos Alomar-ish winding guitar (from old Commotions mucker Neil Clark presumably), tinny rhythm box and ‘80s synths (from another Commotion, Blair Cowan) in the new album’s Night Sweats. “Before you added to the complication, hacked my meditation.”
The complication in this motherfucker, in this song specifically, is that what sounds like belligerence is actually a kind of celebration of persistence. Or a desire for it at the very least. As Night Sweats goes on, and he confesses to being perpetually “on the verge of something beautiful or terrible, or passing out” he asks “if you hold me close, we might just make it to the morning”.
In this catalogue then, Guesswork is merely the next step, the next stage even: a record about ageing and failing, reaching and remembering, and maybe wagering something of life on the answer. “Now I’m no longer chasing certainty/What’s the over, what’s the over/under?” he asks at the start.
In the warm solace draped over the glacial movement in Remains – which begins, extending the Bowie comparisons a bit further, as a kind of gentle Warszawa – Cole’s protagonist feels untethered watching “the young ones raise their glasses in the air/And drink without a care, for tomorrow”. The little dabs of guitar serve as questions beneath his exposed and attractive voice, but it is the late arriving ancient synthesisers which make it clear the matter won’t be settled today.
If the hints haven’t given it away, there are some changes are afoot here, made obvious from the opening steady heartbeat pulse. While not a full electronic album, the sounds of synthesisers and programmed rhythms are constants. On Violins in fact you could be forgiven for mistaking it for a Vince Clark/Alison Moyet production so rich are its keyboard basslines and sparkling its synth burbles.
The fact that while the Clarke signature sound ruled the pop charts 35 years ago, Cole’s then-jangly guitar classicism was the alternative, is a neat twist of history, especially when you might well be tempted to cast some asymmetrical shapes on the dancefloor in the tinkling-and-bubbling When I Came Down From The Mountain.
Now while Cole curls around the microphone in The Afterlife, the two ex-Commotions, and another longtime collaborator in drummer Fred Maher, make like a semi-shadowed backing band on stage behind a (far) less dramatic Marc Almond; twist some unlikely vamping into Night Sweats; bring a full baby Depeche Mode to Moments And Whatnot; and convert to a one-man-and-machine accepting defeat unit in the closing The Loudness Wars.
After a while it feels anything but odd. As if we’ve grown into it, actually. Which suggests that the answer to the question Cole puts midway through Guesswork, “what are we to do with all this space and time?”, could be that we - adults of a certain age - could do worse than spend some of it with this record.
Lloyd Cole will tour Australia in December.
Theatre Royal, Hobart, 6th; Ulumbarra Theatre, Bendigo, 7th; Canberra Theatre Centre, 9th; Hamer Hall, Melbourne, 11th; Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide, 12th; Lismore City Hall, 14th; QPAC, Brisbane, 15th; City Recital Hall, Sydney, 20th; Freo Social, 22nd.