Lloyd Cole Fully Embraces Synthesizers with On Pain

The England-born singer's latest is a confident, cohesive album

Music Reviews Lloyd Cole
Lloyd Cole Fully Embraces Synthesizers with On Pain

Lloyd Cole has been dabbling with synthesizers for a while now, but it came as a surprise when he merged his electronic experimentation with pop songcraft on his 2019 album Guesswork. Once known for a jangly guitar-based pop sound in the ’80s with his band the Commotions, Cole moved toward alt-rock and, then, a quieter singer/songwriter vibe as a solo artist in the 1990s and 2000s. His 2015 album 1D Electronics 2012–2014 seemed like an outlier. Not even close.

In many cases on Guesswork, Cole added electronic elements to songs after the fact. For his latest, On Pain, the tracks often developed out of loops or snippets of sound he created on modular synthesizers. The difference is readily apparent in these eight songs. Not only do the musical elements feel more cohesive, but Cole himself sounds more assured, as if the experimentation on his previous album landed his music right where he wants it to be. He covers a lot of musical territory with On Pain, blending synthesizers with other instruments and occasionally distorting his vocals and summoning a range of moods, from quiet and insular to breezy and uptempo.

“Warm By The Fire” tilts toward the latter, as little bursts of guitar intertwine with shuddering synths over a propulsive beat while Cole delivers vocals with just a hint of digital manipulation. It’s not exactly a club song, but it’s easy to move to, with smart lyrics and a melodic hook that lingers. Elsewhere, the synthesizers at the heart of “More of What You Are” offer a sensation of floating slowly upward, like fireflies rising out of a field as dusk deepens in early summer, and Cole repeats the refrain in sensuous tones, backed by an joyous chorus of effects-treated vocals.

Some of the tracks here develop slowly: “More of What You Are” starts with a low, burbling synth that kicks into gear on the chorus with a steady beat and a subtly catchy melody that Cole sings in smooth, warm tones. He imagines moving away from a hectic life in Los Angeles to a more tempered existence full of galleries and cafes in Berlin. Others undergo more pronounced shifts. “You Are Here Now” has a somber feel with layers of moody synth textures drifting around Cole’s voice before giving way to a guitar break, and then a terse beat as he repeats the refrain: “All it takes is one moment of perfect clarity.”

Cole seems to have embraced that same sense of clarity on On Pain. It may not have occurred in a single moment, but the speed and grace with which he has reshaped his sound while retaining the elements that have always made him compelling—the literate lyrics, his expressive voice, his knack for hummable melodies—suggest that he has fully arrived at the next phase of a career that continues to deliver songs worth hearing.

Eric R. Danton has been contributing to Paste since 2013. His work has also appeared in Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe and Pitchfork, among other publications. Follow him on Mastodon or visit his website.

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