An aura of appreciation for the literary follows singer/songwriter Lloyd Cole everywhere he goes--even on airliners.
"My flight was fine, except I didn't seem to get much peace," he related during a phone interview this week from his Denver hotel. "I was trying to read, and I realized it was impossible with a 7-year-old-girl next to me reading the words out loud at the same time. So I ended up talking to her."
If only pop critics were so easily befriended.
The meticulous wordsmith Cole and his Glasgow-based band the Commotions are wrapping up a 14-date North American tour (the band plays the Palace on Sunday and San Diego State University on Monday) supporting their second album, "Easy Pieces."
The group received a stack of rave reviews and "best new group" huzzahs after its first album, last year's loose-limbed, guitar-jangling "Rattlesnakes." But there's less of a positive consensus out about "Easy Pieces," though there's little quibble about its new lush-and-lovely musical direction or Cole's trademark quavery voice.
It's his intricate lyrics about love, loneliness and even physical ugliness that put some people off. He can come up with mesmerizing spirals of affecting images, but he also indulges in overly clever tangles of words that lack both poetic power and narrative coherence.
Cole, a former English major at Glasgow University, was unapologetic about his lyrics. "If what I'm dealing with is fairly important, then I try to make the song fairly direct," he said. "But I can only take being direct to a certain limit, because I think if you put content above form, then you can get ugly language, and I don't like that. The sound of the words and the entertainment factor that language can hold is very important, and I think that's what I'm best at--putting words together and making them sound good."
Despite the fuzzy focus of some Commotions songs, the album hangs together well, thanks to Cole's unique vocabulary. In addition to lots of talk about rain and sleep, he has a special fondness for religious symbolism, with many references to Jesus, salvation and sin.
"It's just the way I write," he explained. "Sometimes I use personalities that are known in order to maybe create a scenario or describe a character--and I just kept using Jesus. I'm sure Freud would have something to say about it, but I don't know anything about that kind of stuff."
Cole's self-effacing humor counters the reputation for self-absorbed snobbery the British music press frequently saddles him with. Responding to the comparisons drawn between him and Lou Reed, he said, "If it was as a rhythm guitar player, I wouldn't mind at all, but unfortunately it usually isn't in that context. I don't think we've got a lot in common other than we don't sing properly and we've both got small (vocal) ranges."
For now, Cole is ready to close the book on "Easy Pieces" and invest his energy honing the band's live performances and developing his new song ideas. "We spend a long time trying to get the songs right while we record them and we don't really think much about them after that," he said.
"We don't really make records we're not happy with. We have to do some of these in-store things where people come and meet us, and our records are always playing--it's horrible! I just don't like listening to our records. I think they're good, but there's nothing worse than hearing yourself sing."