Well-read, wryly funny, emotionally aloof, bookishly handsome–if Lloyd Cole and Stephen Malkmus hadn’t become successful songwriters, they would’ve made charismatic English professors. Instead, each helped define college rock in his respective decade, Malkmus by fronting Pavement through the 90s and Cole by providing the prefix to “and the Commotions” in the 80s.
The affinity between the almost young American and the almost middle-aged Brit is more striking than you might first imagine. Cole and Malkmus share a guitar style (uneffected, fundamental chords), a vocal timbre (a soft tenor), and a melodic sense (the vocal lines to Cole’s new “Impossible Girl” and Malkmus’s “Jenny & the Ess-Dog” bear a strong resemblance). The key differences between the two are subject matter–Malkmus avoids the personal, Cole draws heavily on it–and earnestness of approach: Malkmus gives the impression that he shrugs songs onto tape, while Cole seemingly broods over the process.
This spring, releases and tours by the two songwriters crisscross at interesting junctures. While the ex-Pavement leader is taking a star turn on his eponymously titled solo debut, using a portrait of his sun-kissed face and overgrown hairdo as cover art and his girlfriend as a percussionist, Cole has assembled his first credited band since the Commotions. He uses the lyrics on The Negatives to reflect on the 90s, and specifically on the era of his own eponymously titled debut, during which he grew a greasy sheet of hair, posed for an Amaretto print ad, and, in his words, “tried to rock” a la his teen heroes, David Bowie and T. Rex’s Marc Bolan. To launch his solo career, he moved from London to New York, recruited Lou Reed’s Blue Mask-era sidemen, guitarist Robert Quine and drummer-producer Fred Maher, penned songs like the mean-streets-stalking “Downtown,” dedicated his nights to hard drinking, chain-smoking, and womanizing, and, judging by period photos, avoided bathing.
On the new song titled “Tried to Rock,” he colors those days with a genuine affection and sense of humor: “I grew my hair / My walls were bare / I had one red wine glass / It was self-fulfilling / I had four girlfriends / I had no visible means of support / I lived on credit-card rye bread.” He even apologizes for some of his more prominent affectations: “And if I called you babe / I didn’t mean to say that you were just a babe.” Why’d he do it? “I guess I needed to try on something new / I tried to no avail / I guess I’m glad I failed.”
What failure has meant to Cole is a diminished fan base. But artistically, though pop trends haven’t supported his moves, he’s continued to evolve in the manner of classic songwriters like Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, and Ray Davies. Those icons have hardly torched the album charts in recent decades, and Cole isn’t likely to either, without employing the extramusical elements required to score a pop hit these days: choreographers, stylists, costumes, stage props. Today’s music consumers don’t necessarily want songs with their spectacle.
Now, after recording three Commotions albums and four solo albums for majors, Cole has found a more sympathetic home on an independent label (the formerly Chicago-based March Records). In the six years since the release of his last solo work, Love Story, he has restimulated his muse by adopting a backing group of younger, like-minded NYC musicians–also dubbed the Negatives–including Michael Kotch from Eve’s Plum and the chirpy Jill Sobule on guitars, former Dambuilder David Derby on bass, and Ivy’s Rafa Maciejak on drums. The results are unmistakably Cole–the lazy voice, the vintage tones, the clever failed-romantic lyrics–but the production is less glossy and the playing less straitjacketed than on his solo works.
Judging by the lyrics, Cole found ample time for introspection during his hiatus. He’s always been self-deprecating–on 1984’s “Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken?” he sang, “Lean over on the bookcase / If you really want to get straight / Read Norman Mailer / Get a new tailor”–but age has provided him with a better vantage point from which to aim at his intellectual pretensions. On “What’s Wrong With This Picture?” an unidentified girlfriend tells him off: “You’re such a European SOB / Could you exist without your irony? / I guess that you’re afraid to be alone or be alive.”
It makes you wonder if Cole could offer Malkmus a little advice–and whether Malkmus would take it. Judging by his solo debut, Malkmus won’t be shortening his trademark ironic distance any time soon. But while he’s no less oblique as a solo entity than he was in Pavement, the singer has scrawled some of his catchiest and cleverest songs for the album: On “The Hook” he sketches a tall tale of life on the high seas, then pirates a solo from the Stones’ “Tumbling Dice”; and on “Jenny & the Ess-Dog,” he constructs perversely memorable internal rhymes like “She’s 18, he’s 31 / She’s a rich girl / He’s the son”–wait for it–“of a Coca-Cola middleman.” Like Cole, he has a way with a lilting melody that can lodge even the most throwaway line in your brain.
If anything, ridding himself of old bandmates has allowed Malkmus to get as whimsical with his musical arrangements as he does with his lyrics. When he gets the notion that the lines “I’ve got a bald head / My name is Yul Brenner / And I am a famous movie star” are best complemented by a melancholy piano, analog synth burbles, and choruses of lazy oooo-oooos, there’s no one to stop him from running with it.
While going solo has become a rock cliche in itself, one song suggests that Malkmus, who’s worked with independent labels throughout his career, will never “try to rock” like Cole. On “Church on White,” an apparent note to self and the only tune on which Malkmus sounds remotely genuine, he sings, “Promise me / You will always be / Too awake to be famous, too wired to be safe.”
Though they’ve both matured over the years, neither Malkmus nor Cole can be accused of playing it safe. Instead of relying on the Pavement brand name, Malkmus has risked ridicule–which has to be among the sarky one’s biggest fears after pricking the vanities of alt-rock superstars in Pavement tunes–by going it alone with the help of lesser-known indie rockers Joanna Bolme (bass) and John Moen (drums). Likewise, Cole has turned to relatively unknown musicians for his latest project and rediscovered his love of music making by playing tiny Manhattan clubs. As a result, neither is in any danger of stumbling onto the cover of Rolling Stone at this point–which is probably healthier for their shared muse, anyway.
Who will replace them as this decade’s dorm-refrigerator pin-up? Who knows. Faced with the current musical climate, maybe the best candidates have gone back for their teaching certificates instead.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Moses Berkson.