In the ’80s, there was Morrissey, and there was Lloyd Cole. Sure, there were plenty of other bookish young men writing bitingly intelligent guitar pop, such as Roddy Frame and Edwyn Collins, but nobody quite came close to Moz and Loz. In fact, Lloyd Cole and his Commotions always seemed to be a bit overshadowed by their Mancunian rivals – but albums like Rattlesnakes and Mainstream still stand up to critical scrutiny 30 years later.
What made Cole such a wonderful musician was that voice – a rich, deep baritone that could sound both utterly desolate and wryly amused (often in the same song) – and his lyrics. There weren’t many songwriters in the mid-’80s happy to throw in references to Simone De Beauvoir, Norman Mailer and Joan Dideon, but Cole made it seem like second nature. The Commotions were the sort of band who’d inspire you to write out a reading list after listening to them, and they still didn’t feel too pretentious. Well, ok, maybe a bit pretentious.
So, if you’re only just returning to Lloyd Cole and your only memory of him is from his ’80s heyday, prepare to be a bit taken aback. For 1D Electronics, as the name may suggest, doesn’t feature any of Cole’s lyrics. Nor does it feature any sign of that voice. Instead, over the last few years, Cole has embraced modular synths and electronica, and the results are very different from what his reputation may suggest.
For, back in 2011, the German experimental composer Hans Joachim Roedelius embarked on a project with Cole, who was somewhat disillusioned with traditional guitar pop. Cole ended up building his own modular synth and taught himself how to play it, and the results were eventually showcased in 2013’s collaboration with Roedelius, Selected Studies Vol 1. This is, in many ways, a companion piece to that collaboration (although Roedelius makes no appearance on this record), consisting of pieces originally rejected for Selected Studies, or pieces that Cole just felt were unfinished in some way.
With that in mind, it’s fair to say that 1D Electronics sounds more like a collection of sketches than a fully formed album. At times, it’s very impressive, conjuring up a slightly foreboding, menacing atmosphere (The Bund, in particular, would make a perfect soundtrack to a particularly unnerving psychological horror film) while at other times it tends to float by without making much of an impression (the opening, aptly named Slight Piece is pretty enough but so lightweight it almost flies away).
The longer tracks, where Cole can really delve into this new format, are the more successful. The five minute long Ken O could have been an outtake from Radiohead‘s Kid A, with its scattered beats and random bleeps underscored by a deep, long drone of a synth line – while it’s never going to be accused of being too catchy, it soon proves to be weirdly hypnotic. Track And Hold too has an eerie appeal as well but it’s the aforementioned The Bund which really stands out, waves of portentous synth loops and unsettling electronic effects which build up a terrific tension.
Other tracks though, such as Pertronics or the brief interlude of One Voice, just sound like Cole tapping various keys on his modular synth to see what noises come out – which, as he was teaching himself how to play the instrument at the time, was probably exactly what happened. One of the fascinating things about 1D Electronics though is hearing Cole’s growth as an electronic musician documented: it’s a long way from a primitive sketch like One Voice to a complex, emotionally satisfying epic like Slight Orchestra, but the album shows how Cole managed it.
While 1D Electronics will probably bemuse as many people as it will beguile, it’s certainly an intriguing experiment of a musician taking on an entirely new genre. And, in an age where all too many former pop stars of a certain vintage are happy to just jump on the nostalgia bandwagon and join the ’80s revival gig circuit, Lloyd Cole should be congratulated for pushing his own boundaries as an artist.