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City Recital Hall, Sydney, December 20

There are any number of reasons why Lloyd Cole opening his two-pronged show – solo, and then as a duo with Neil Clark - with Past Imperfect was beautifully apt.

Not least among them was the presence in the audience of two former Go-Betweens, Lindy Morrison and Amanda Brown, for a song which is the most Go-Betweens-resonant in his catalogue, with its languorous melody that doesn’t seek to clutter matters, the suggestion of a rhythm seemingly ready to unfurl if given the chance, and a careful balance between romanticism and regret that nonetheless subtly leans towards the former.

In a night playing more than a smattering of new material through a predominantly retrospective setlist, this 20-year-old song originally recorded with The Negatives, spoke of looking back with faults both in the past and the memory. “Why was my head in the unmade bed/With a girl whose name I lost,” Cole asked. “I can’t unwrite the tune/Or discount the cost/I can’t recall.”

It was prepared to laugh, albeit gently, forgivingly, at its protagonist: “I’ve half a mind to find myself/And half …. I can’t recall”. It laid bare, as acoustic shows are prone to, the strengths and weaknesses of song and singer, without pretending about either. And it confirmed that as much as all of us were very pleased to hear staples such as Ready To Be Heartbroken (with Clark’s guitar lines, as ever, small pieces of joy) and new winners such as The Over Under (an elegiac exploration of the space between resignation and acceptance) the gems from Cole’s songbook are spread widely.

So, yes, 2013’s Kids Today satisfied several ways with its biting lines within smooth glides, Late Night, Early Town and Music In A Foreign Language from a decade earlier were quietly seductive without a drop of sweat, and Moments And Whatnot from this year’s Guesswork, sounded in this format – shorn of the synths, electric guitar, or indeed anyone else - quite French and as sneakily buoyant as Jennifer Said from the late ‘80s.

If there was a disappointment for me it was that with Clark along for the ride the second set didn’t plug in and give us some of the ‘70s Bowie/Eno/Pop shapes and sounds of Guesswork. But as several people pointed out to me afterwards, there were plenty of small revelations in the stripped right back performances.

Anyway, apart from acceptance of disappointment being a sub note in so many of his best songs (including, this night, Sentimental Fool, explaining why less than ideal is still better than a lot of things) with Cole in fine comedic form deploying well-worked in lines (“You’re not getting any younger either”), we could all just laugh a little more.

At him, at ourselves, at fate. Just not too much, at our age.

“Have a great time,” he said, all but arching his eyebrows. “Restrain yourself.”

Lloyd Cole plays his final show Sunday, December 22, Freo Social, Perth.

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