Album of the Week, October 26: Bad Vibes by Lloyd Cole

ColeVibesLloyd Cole was born and raised in Derbyshire in England. He studied philosophy at the University of Glasgow, where he met the four men who would join him as Lloyd Cole and the Commotions. The quintet played smart, wry, literate, pop with a folk-tinged sound that was part of the British jangle-pop movement. Cole broke up the band after three strong albums and moved to New York. He built a potent backing band with Fred Maher, Robert Quine, and Matthew Sweet, releasing an eponymous solo debut that mined his well-honed lyrical vein with a punchier rock backdrop. The next disc, Don’t Get Weird On Me Babe, had one side of similar songs and a second side of lush, string-laden songs, albeit with his familiar lyrical approach. Dropped by his U.S. label, Cole regrouped, teaming with producer Adam Peters (late of the Triffids) and adding some old bandmates into the mix. The result was a simultaneously slicker and earthier disc that remains his most consistent and intriguing.

Title Bad Vibes
Act Lloyd Cole
Label Rykodisc Release Date October 1993
Producer Adam Peters
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  38
  1. Morning Is Broken
  2. So You’d Like to Save the World
  3. Holier Than Thou
  4. Love You So What
  5. Wild Mushrooms
  6. My Way To You
  7. Too Much of A Good Thing
  8. Fall Together
  9. Mister Wrong
  10. Seen the Future
  11. Can’t Get Arrested
  12. For the Pleasure of Your Company [bonus track]
  13. 4 M.B. [bonus track]

The album opens with Morning Is Broken, a nice play on a familiar title that presages the even more darkly ironic lyrical tone of the disc. It opens with a scratchy guitar and mechanical drum line, the bursts into solid 90s power pop. Cole’s first words, “You used to be mean,” start the story of a complicated relationship. His lyrics are still wry and literate, but he’s grown up and his themes are richer and darker. That said, he still enjoys a lark, and So You’d Like to Save the World is a wonderful blend of a barfly pickup and environmentalism. It works strangely well and turns out to be one of his finest moments.

Holier Than Thou slows things down, with a hushed vocal suited to the vestry. Another broken relationship song, it features a braggart of a narrator whose comeuppance looms in the chorus. Love You So What is a delightful romp with our casual Lothario getting as good as he gives. Energetic and fun, it’s a close to a dance hit as Cole ever gets — and that works too. Things get a bit weird with Wild Mushrooms, with the tables fully turned and a mysterious figure taking advantage of the narrator. The eerie music fits the story nicely, saving it from being a throwaway moment.

The lush textures of the previous album return for My Way to You. It’s nice sequencing, moving into a fairly straightforward romantic ballad with a dark edge. It shows off another aspect of Cole’s work and is quite effective, even without his trademark irony. A trip-hop beat opens another nearly danceable song that builds the romantic energy nicely. With a seductive vocal and surging rhythm, it promises that if the lover of the last track welcomes him home, the narrator will make it worthwhile. It’s a good pair of songs and demonstrates Cole’s growing musical and lyrical flexibility.

Fall Together is a dark song built on a familiar theme, borrowing from the Beatles sideways. With a guitar line that could have been on Abbey Road, Cole kicks of a four-song suite about the perils of seeking — and achieving — success. Mister Wrong almost breaks the theme as it plays out a breaking relationship over a folky melody reminiscent of Cole’s Commotions days. The sense of failure, romantic or otherwise, fits in however. Seen the Future is a bleak look at corporate music and a fairly vitriolic questioning of the value of succeeding. The set grinds to a halt with Can’t Get Arrested, as fame passes by and the narrator decides that might be just fine. With a slow burn and a lovely keyboard line, it almost feels like a lost Triffids song and closes out the original album on a note of quiet despair with just a hint of self-respect.

The U.S. release included two bonus tracks. 4 M.B. is a pleasant, straightforward ode to Marc Bolan, a musician whose work Cole has frequently cited and sometimes covered. It’s fine, but doesn’t add much to the proceedings. For the Pleasure of Your Company, on the other hand, is a wonderful song that fits nicely with the romantic sequence earlier in the disc.

Bad Vibes lacks some of the dramatic musical highs of other Lloyd Cole albums. What it offers is a clear sense of transition, with the wryly literate observer growing and taking a more active part in his world. The songs are more varied and overall more consistent. While this disc may not have as many laugh-out-loud or sigh-deeply moments, the overall tapestry is tightly woven and more fully satisfying than any other release in Cole’s rich catalog.

FURTHER LISTENING: The three Commotions discs are all quite good. Even better is the compilation 1984 – 1989, a true best of that shows off the band at its finest from start to finish. Sadly, Cole’s work since then has never been effectively anthologized, with 2004’s The Singles doing the best job but overlapping too much with the Commotions retrospective. The best standalone albums are:
  • Don’t Get Weird On Me Babe (1991): a wonderful look at two musical sides of Lloyd Cole with some very nice songs;
  • Love Story (1995): the beginning of Cole’s long run of label changes and more stripped-down, folky songs and a strong follow-up to the maturity of Bad Vibes;
  • The Negatives (2000): a new, one-off band featuring some young talent reinvigorates Cole’s energy for the many standout tracks, although the whole proceeding drags a bit;
  • Standards (2013): a remarkable return to form with one well-chosen cover and a great set of new songs.

About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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