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One of pop music's unreliable narrators offers discomfort. (But can you trust him?)

Four decades into his career, Lloyd Cole is still dishing out guitar-based pop songs filled with ambiguity and ambivalence.
Mark Dellas
Courtesy of the artist
Four decades into his career, Lloyd Cole is still dishing out guitar-based pop songs filled with ambiguity and ambivalence.

Let's pour out a Gatsby-sized glass of claret for the unreliable narrator. From that novel's Nick Carraway to Euphoria's Rue, slippery voices infuse modern life's emblematic stories with the hangover-inducing scent of its most treasured afflictions: ambiguity and ambivalence. Lloyd Cole, who came onto the pop scene as the resident brainiac of early 1980s U.K. jangle pop, has been writing unreliable narratives since those days. "A girl needs a gun these days, hey, on account of all the rattlesnakes," he sang in the Joan Didion-inspired ode to shaky heroines that was his band the Commotions' biggest hit.

Forty years later, Cole's new album finds him still exploring that hazy space where people question themselves, make excuses and promises and ponder the least destructive next move. On Pain, a well-calibrated mix of fleshed-out narratives and evocative set pieces, suits a time when even the weather doesn't seem to know what to do.

Cole has followed two musical paths since going solo in 1990, continuing to release winning turtleneck pop albums alongside ambient-leaning electronic experiments. (He collaborated with Krautrock legend Hans-Joachim Roedelius on thelovelySelected Studies, Vol. 1.) Cole's last song-oriented album, 2019's Guesswork, began imagining what a fusion of his two interests would sound like; On Pain finds the balance. The title track begins things in Cole's favorite place, the realm of the raised eyebrow — "I can't be trusted with your money," he croons, his sweet tenor subtly distorted. "Look what I did when you gave it to me." This suave anti-hero can be trusted with sorrow and pain; he'll repress those cathartic responses so that the damaged relationship can continue.

A glum beginning, "On Pain" somehow feels comforting, its soft allure setting the course for Cole's explorations of life lived in the halfway states of daydreaming, rumination and creeping dread. Make peace with it — that's the message of songs like the climate crisis elegies "Warm By The Fire" and "Wolves," or "I Can Hear Everything," a portrait of maddening solitude that nods toward Berlin-era David Bowie. While Bowie usually defaulted to melodrama, Cole stays in the creep — that space of unresolved circumstances and emotions that has room for great discomfort and some hope, some beauty.

Bowie's a muse throughout On Pain, summoned again on the album's most hopeful track, "The Idiot," which speaks in the voice of Iggy Pop about the better life those two 1970s icons could live if they'd just get out of L.A. for a while. (They did.) On his Berlin albums the Thin White Duke brought rock and roll swagger to the experimental realm; Cole does something similar, but with the sweetness and implied intimacy of guitar pop. His collaborators include original Commotions Blair Cowan and Neil Clark as well as friends from Cole's New York years, like Dave Derby (ofGramercy Arms) and Joan Wasser; their presence, as well as deft production from Chris Merrick Hughes, open up Cole's claustrophobic scenarios.

The discomfort these songs embody is self-inflicted even when outside forces trigger it. The spiraling, mantra-like "This Can't Be Happening" is nothing but a chorus: the title phrase plus the cruel rejoinder, "It can't be possible, but it's happening now." Is the disaster global? Life-disrupting — a death, diagnosis or breakup? Or is it simply the onslaught of another dangerous mood? On Pain's songs play out inside such impasses more than they describe them. Yet their relentless interiority offers Cole a way toward hope. Thoughts can turn; it's up to his wounded and wounding protagonists to round the corner. The story might end differently if the narrator thinks again.

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Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.