Elegant, minimalist synthpop with some fine tunes.
There are some people who may not have been paying attention over the past 40 years and still associate Lloyd Cole with the jangly guitars of his seminal debut album ‘Rattlesnakes’. However, Cole has had a long-standing interest in using synthesisers and producing electronic music. He has previously collaborated with Joachim Roedelius, the pioneering German electronic musician and guitars were certainly not to the fore on Cole’s last album, 2019’s ‘Guesswork’.
‘On Pain’ came together at The Establishment, the studio in the attic of Cole’s home in western Massachusetts. The first track that was finished, but which is the last one on the album, was ‘Wolves’, a seven-and-a-half minute epic that opens with brooding synths. According to Cole the song “wasn’t written on an instrument, but from a soundscape I’d made. That explains why its tempo is 80.066 bpm! It doesn’t have any drums”. ‘Wolves’ came about after Cole pondered what would happen if a pack of wolves found an old transistor radio and learnt about humanity through the songs playing on an old AM station; ‘You worship false idols, You love the deceased, You cower before tyrants, You spread the disease’. There’s a remix package of ‘Wolves’, which stands alone from the album, featuring new and interesting versions by Chris Hughes, Martyn Ware, Mogwai’s Barry Burns, as well as Cole himself.
The album opens with the title track. It was originally titled ‘I Can’t Be Trusted’, the first line Cole sings is ‘I can’t be trusted with your money’. However, after his son, William, told him that the original album title, which was ‘Pain And The Untrained Heart‘, “sounded like a bad Paul McCartney album title”, the titles of the album and its first track were duly changed.
‘Warm By The Fire’ is the song on the album which features the most guitar. It might sound like it’s about a middle aged man sitting comfortably with his feet up, but it tells a tale of burning cars, surging rioters, smoking streets and looted shopping malls, as Cole sings ‘Oh LA, There will be no respite, For the city of angels, No escape from the chill of the ice, But it’s warm by the fire’.
‘This Can’t Be Happening’ comprises just three lines repeated again and again, ‘You can’t believe it, It can’t be possible, But it’s happening now’. It’s underlain by ominous stabs of synths and towards the end of the song Cole’s vocals are framed by eerie female harmonies courtesy of Joan Wasser and Renée LoBue. The song has a sense of foreboding about it, what’s the central character experiencing, the music intimates it’s something primal, but we never find out what the outcome is.
Cole isn’t afraid to use his voice as an additional instrument. The use of a vocoder on the catchy ‘I Can Hear Everything’ gives his singing an unexpected makeover. Cole says of his of voice on the record; “My vocals are treated without any respect. It’s like any other instrument. I’m trying to add texture and harmony to it”.
‘The Idiot’ is the most sentimental track on the album. It’s a tribute to David Bowie and Iggy Pop’s time in Berlin; ‘We’ll move to Berlin, Stop being drug addicts, We’ll cycle and swim, Stop being drug addicts, We’ll rent an efficiency, You’ll take the serious guise, I’ll be the idiot’. Regarding Bowie’s and Pop’s séjour in Berlin, Cole says that, “I’m semi-obsessed with that period and initially wanted to write an essay about it”, instead he’s written a rather good song.
This is an ambitious album with some great moments. If you’re looking for Byrdsian chiming guitars you won’t find them here, but you will find some thoughtful and beautiful music.