During the mid 80s, as a young teen, I used to daydream about what my life would be like as an adult out in the world on my own. Most of these visions seemed to involve me living in some sort of high-rise apartment in the middle of a downtown metropolis and my pad would be adorned with things like black leather furniture, bare brick walls, white carpeting and neon lights for art and the only available light source. I would be near all of the coolest night clubs and, of course, all the pretty ladies would love me. In my future world, pretty much everything would still be like it was in the mid-80s, because all of that shit was forever in my mind. The only difference is that reality would start to mirror more of the movie and music video landscape of the time. In other words, things would be stuck in a post-apocalyptic retro/future scenario – some sort of Streets of Fire world. In retrospect, I often wonder what was going on with that. Maybe it was the Reagan regime’s push for a return to simpler times (i.e. the 50s, where dissenting voices were more easily quashed), while at the same time smashing us under the thumb of fear and paranoia of constant nuclear threat (again, see the 50s). How this manifested itself in movies and music videos is beyond me, but it clearly did. Just watch a music video from the 80s and you’ll see lots of leather jackets, plain white t-shirts, Levi’s, motorcycles, old phones, and appliances shot in black and white, yet adorned with brightly colored highlights and other modern touches in a setting of an abandoned cityscape strewn with blowing debris. This is pretty much how I thought the near future would be and that I would somehow thrive in such an environment. As I reached adulthood, this vision faded into something closer to reality. Instead, I simply wanted to find a place of my own, no matter the squalor, as long as I could afford ramen, macaroni & cheese and the occasional new music purchase or show, I’d be pretty happy and very disgruntled in a punk rock sort of way. It was a more realistic version of life, but still framed within a vision where I would be cool. Isn’t that what most of us wanted as teenagers?
It was just after spring break in 1990 on a Sunday evening, the first truly warm evening of the year, when I first heard a song named “Downtown” on Q105’s New Music Hour. It was then, while lying down on my bed/couch thing in the decrepit dorm room of Clark Hall at Pacific University, my old daydreams of high-rise dominance came flooding back to me like a beacon of hope. At first, I thought this slick mildly bluesy city song over piano taps was a new The The song, which seems crazy to me now, since Matt Johnson would never release a new album within a year of the previous one, and since the style is pretty far afield from the madness of much of his work. Instead the song turned out to be a new Lloyd Cole song from his first solo album (someone just recently mistook The The’s “Uncertain Smile” as an old Lloyd Cole song, so I feel a bit vindicated). I first heard Lloyd Cole in 1987 with his song “My Bag,” which I remember touting a bit to my friends when I bought the 12” single, but I never went any further. This new song, however, had me very energized. The opening lines are so cool and so fitting of the world I thought I wanted to live in: “I want to take you down underside of the city / where the sun doesn’t shine and the moon isn’t pretty / and the slow train crawls in the nights and the days are as one as the smoke and the heat haze / yes, it’s neon here twenty four hours of the day / and you’re sure looking pretty when it’s hitting on your face.” It’s full of some dark underbelly dealings, but so damn slick, chic and smooth. It made me want to race down to Jay Jacobs at the barely breathing Galleria and buy that $99 black suit that they had in the display window for about five years straight, so I could wander around town with my tie partly undone, the suit a little wrinkled and smelling of day old cologne and booze. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as handsome as Cole, nor would I ever be, so I could never pull off the walk of triumph, but only the walk of shame. If none of this makes any sense, you’ve probably read too far.
It wasn’t until early in the summer break that I purchased the self-titled solo debut and like any 19 year old, I played “Downtown” over and over and pretty much ignored the rest of the album. Then I saw the video for “No Blue Skies” and that became my new anthem. This down tempo number with huge atmospheric keyboard washes over a steady beat, grinding bass and magical guitar fills sent me into a warm world of beautiful melancholy and reflection. With lines like “Looking for something when there’s nothing there to be found / make it easy on yourself / go out and find your body someone else / or tear the stars out of the sky” never had I enjoyed heartbreak so much. Little by little, the album grew on me. Along the lines of “No Blue Skies,” my other early favorites mined a similar slower and sadder vein. The album opens after all with “Don’t Look Back” and maybe loneliest lines on the album: “When you’re nothing to no one / and you’re less to your kin / and you’re looking for someone / who won’t cling to anything,” and finally concluding that “life seems never ending when you’re young.” The next one to beat me into submission is the aptly titled “Loveless.” This destitute song opens and closes with what sounds like an empty can (of beer maybe?) clanking on the ground as Cole takes us vividly down the road of a breaking relationship and the sheer pain of it all (“you lie and you cheat your own mind to believing / that you don’t need anything or anyone / so why do you say you love me when you don’t?”).
This album is not all darkness. The string and horn-laden “A Long Way Down” finds Cole warning of the dangers of narcissism and too high of a self-esteem (“walking that tall your head is going to trip your feet”). The song, at first, verges on camp, but instead turns out to be a catchy timeless tune. The more upbeat numbers are equally up to par. “What Do You Know About Love?,” “Sweetheart,” and “I Hate to See You Baby Doing that Stuff” are all hook-filled numbers that wind their way into ones music subconscious for endless replays. There are also the classic lust-filled numbers that should dot any classic rock-n-roll album and Cole finds a way to pull it off with intelligence in “Ice Cream Girl” (“I feel like a shady politician / trying to sell a broken down car / to a sleeping virgin princess / you know that’s not what you are / do I have to feel this small / before you’ll play ball?”) and the bouncy “Undressed,” which is pretty self-explanatory. The LP ends with the gritty “Mercy Killing,” which assumes that “there must be more to life than this / or we’d be mercy killing us.” It’s a sentiment that I’m sure many of us have felt a time or two.
The music and performances on this album are immaculate. The co-producer, Fred Maher, also fills in with his muscular and classic drumming style (also featured on Lou Reed’s excellent 1989 album New York), while the late Robert Quine, of the late-70s punk originals Richard Hell and the Voidoids plays his bluesy and crystalline leads throughout. Matthew Sweet also adds his rich, full-sounding bass, before borrowing most of this same line-up (including Cole) for his 1991 breakthrough pop rock classic album Girlfriend. The best part about this album is that it continues to grow better with age. It never made any of my best of the year album lists, but I could easily put it into my all-time top 10 or 20 favorite albums of all time. It comes highly recommended.
Now that I’m 40 and listening to this album as I type this, I may need to re-think my vision of the future. A part of me still wants that high-rise apartment, but I still don’t think I can pull off the cool.