You certainly can’t accuse Lloyd Cole of resting on his laurels. It would be easy for Cole to play the nostalgia game, churning out remakes of Rattlesnakes and Perfect Skin for all the fortysomethings who miss ’80s jangly indie guitar but who, for obvious reasons, don’t really want to encourage Morrissey any more than they have to.
Instead, Cole has ploughed his own furrow since the band he made his name with, The Commotions split back in the late ’80s. In recent times, he’s been experimenting with instrumental electronic music, such as 2001’s collection of minimal ambient synth pieces Plastic Wood, and the 2013 collaboration with Hans Joachim Roedelius, Selected Studies Vol 1.
For Guesswork, his first solo album for four years, the synths haven’t gone away, but this is a more traditional ‘songwriting’ record from Cole. And, for the first time since the Commotions’ one-off reunion 15 years ago, erstwhile bandmates Blair Cowan and Neil Clark are back playing with him.
The Over Under is a somewhat epic opener to Guesswork, a seven-minute number that begins with a nod to David Bowie‘s Low-era stately synths, and then slowly unfurls its majesty. It’s more of an atmospheric scene-setter than anything which truly grabs you by the scruff of the neck, but it’s a fine introduction to Cole’s new sound.
Nightsweats is even better though, the sort of song that actually does grab you by the scruff of the neck. There’s more than a touch of Cole’s fellow Scots The Blue Nile to the portentous synth introduction, before Cole leaps in with one of those attention-grabbing couplets he’s famous for: “Well, I’m a complicated motherfucker, you know that”. There’s also a typically wry and funny line poking fun at Cole’s tendency for a slightly pretentious lyrics: “I’m thinking of rhyming righteous with might just… and I might just”. It’s one of the best things he’s done in ages.
Elsewhere, Moments And Whatnots begins for all the world like a Kraftwerk offcut before becoming a near perfect example of a shimmering pop song, and the bubbling synths of Violins form the basis for one of the most memorable songs here, with some truly macabre lyrics: “The missile leaves the car, flies through the window pane, the mother and the child flee the ball of flame” is how the track begins and it doesn’t get much cheerier.
The only problem with Guesswork is that it becomes quite pedestrian as it progresses. Although it’s only 44 minutes in total, the length of each track (an average time of six minutes) makes the album plod slightly. Although there’s always fun to be found in listening to Cole’s sardonic delivery and lyrics, sometimes you yearn for something to up the tempo a bit.
However, Cole’s eye for an acerbic lyric has certainly not diminished with age, and long-term fans will find much to enjoy on Guesswork. It probably won’t lead to any sort of career revival, but you get the impression that Lloyd Cole’s perfectly happy just following his path and seeing where it leads at this stage.