Arriving in the mid-'80s on the heels of Paddy McAloon (Prefab Sprout) and Roddy Frame (Aztec Camera), Lloyd Cole & the Commotions were immediately hailed as part of a U.K. jangle-pop movement headed by The Smiths. A philosophy student in Glasgow, Cole had a literate style that was compared (like those others) to Elvis Costello's, but rather than turning on wordplay Cole's songs were short, incisive sketches, like Lou Reed's in the Factory days. After three albums, Cole separated from the Commotions with his self-titled 1990 solo debut, experimenting with a number of different styles from rock to chamber pop through the '90s, before petering out in 1995 with "Love Story."
"Music in a Foreign Language" marks his first solo album since then (a band album was released in 2000, "Lloyd Cole & The Negatives," with Jill Sobule and Dambuilder Dave Derby). "Language" hearkens back to Cole's folk-rock sound, and it's recorded as austerely as any Cole album to date. Reunited with Derby as well as Commotions guitarist Neil Clark, the album is largely acoustic and understated in tone, pulled taut by Cole's signature downcast paeans to dissipation and dissatisfaction. Though coherent in theme and musical aesthetic, each song manages distinctive touches, from the electronic bossa-nova backbeat of "Brazil" and the mournful pedal steel and finger-picking of "No More Love Songs" to the melancholy piano beneath the standout title track, which compares a fading relationship (with a speed freak) to music in a foreign language "Even if you wanted, we can't sing along." Unsullied by the inconsistency that's plagued his four prior solo releases and boasting production that highlights his warm vocals, this is Cole's best work since his first two albums with the Commotions.
Released at the same time is Cole's "lost" album, "Etc.," a collection of originals, demos and covers recorded with Clark in the '90s after "Love Story." A strong country flavor pervades the disc (which includes a cover of Karen Black's "Memphis"), and it recalls the new album in its restraint. Cole's versatile voice feels at home in Americana, but despite several good songs (the "Rattlesnakes"-reminiscent "Love Like This Can't Last"; the biting and Byrds-y "Another Lover"), the album is uneven (the limp country rocker "Alright People," a forgettable Dylan cover, a pair of throwaway instrumentals).
As if all this weren't enough, Cole has also released a set of ambient electronic tracks, "Plastic Wood." Cole is less a minimalist along the lines of Steve Reich than he is a watercolor artist, applying strokes of light melody atop softly mutating rhythms; the result is an expression of his innately strong melodic sensibilities.
Twenty years after premiering with an exclamation point, Cole's returned to a place of possibility. The quality of his new album and the intriguing ambient direction of Plastic Wood both give good indications that Cole may still vindicate his early promise.