Lloyd Cole Posits Himself As The Proverbial “Ghost in the Machine” on ‘Guesswork’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Guesswork is the ideal title for the fifteenth Lloyd Cole album. The iconoclastic British expat seems to release new work, including box sets like Lloyd Cole and the Commotions Collected Recordings 1983-1988  and  Lloyd Cole in New York – Collected Recordings 1988-1996, simply to remind us how, since first making a splash in the Eighties leading The Commotions, he prefers to remain below the radar.

The seemingly dour portrait that adorns the album cover (painted by Glasgow Art School graduate and former singer of The Big Dish, Steven Lindsay) manifests just the slightest hint of a smile in the face of its subject, an element eerily similar to that faint trace of sarcasm that’s present in so many songs here like the world-weary but wry opener “The Over Under.” There’s a literary elegance to Cole’s compositions rare in the pop field—the late great Warren Zevon was one of the few contemporary songwriters who shared that quality—and these arrangements mirror that nuanced formality.

Lloyd Cole, keyboardist Blair Cowan and another longtime Lloyd associate Fred Maher collaborated to cultivate electronic sound(s) from classic and modern keyboard, modular and drum synthesizers that dominate Guesswork. As a result, guitars played with some flourish by both Cole and Neil Clark during tracks like “When I Came Down From the Mountain,” would seem to be designed as the contrast between the human elements and the machinery; fashioned as such, the record reinforces the solitary image of the man to whose name it is credited and who on “Moments and Whatnot,” comes right out and declares ‘…mostly I prefer to live in the future…” 

Accordingly, on songs like ”Violins,” the author of these eight songs wants to elucidate the mental machinations that color our feelings as filtered through the various devices we use (not all of them technological). A stereotypical English stoicism lies at the heart of a line like “I might just stop breathing,” but Lloyd delivers it in a near monotone as if such an occurrence is wholly natural in life as he knows it, even on the headphones he references.  To some degree, the lush likes of “Remains” hearken equally to 1991’s Don’t Get Weird on Me Babe and 2013’s Standards, but here Cole posits himself as the proverbial ‘ghost in the machine,’ a disembodied figure whose voice can nevertheless crack with emotion. 

Before it’s over, Guesswork sounds like nothing so much as the effort of a lone individual making his best attempt to imbue our stilted means of contemporary communications with some form of warmth. As such, it’s almost the height of irony to hear and feel the mechanical pulse at the heart of that song called (with no small skepticism) “The Afterlife:” as removed from it all as Lloyd Cole may sometimes seem, Guesswork may be his most overt gesture of connection with his listeners, carrying with it the implicit suggestion that salvation circa 2019 takes more varied forms than we once imagined. And the man’s nothing if not circumspect about his prospects for reaching new listeners and old: in the final number, “The Loudness Wars,” he admits ‘…I’m a cold fish…nobody’s choice dish…’

 

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