Brain hasn’t fared particularly well against brawn in the rock realm in recent years, but that hasn’t sent Lloyd Cole running for steroid treatment.
The singer-songwriter, arguably the most arch and cerebral survivor of the Anglophilic ’80s, has steadfastly refused to dumb down or trend out — a state of affairs worth celebrating for the packed house assembled at the Bowery Ballroom on Thursday night.
Thanks in part to a newly assembled band that featured the always-charming Jill Sobule on guitar and backing vocals, Cole shook off much of the lethargy that weighed down his last few Gotham perfs.
He reconfigured his 1985 favorite “Lost Weekend” to include a pyrotechnic guitar duel, and loped through the new “Tried to Rock” just on the proper side of the line separating sarcasm and sour grapes.
Much of Cole’s new material is steeped in the same sort of ennui that he’s always employed, but it suits him far better now that he’s passed the big 4-0 (an event he alluded to onstage). The elegantly wasted “Man on the Verge” illustrated that most effectively, conjuring up visions of a midlife crisis far more believable and poignant than the ones churned out by lesser writers like Don Henley.
On the downside, however, Cole is hampered by his tendency to return to the same touchstones again and again. He borrows regularly, and copiously, from the Velvet Underground, draping many of this set’s songs in the chugging rhythm guitar cloak Lou Reed wove all those years ago.
That xerography was just as evident in the lyrical tropes of “Brand New Friend” (in which Cole waxed Reed-ily about “walking with Jesus and Jane”) and “Negative Attitude,” one of the lesser songs from the singer’s interesting but inconsistent new album, “The Negatives.”
Toward the end of the set, Cole launched into a cover, a tight-and-torrid one at that, of Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London.”
While the two men come from decidedly different places, the choice revealed the striking similarities between them, most pointedly, an intellect that can easily slide from engaging to off-putting. At the moment, Cole seems entrenched enough to avert that downhill tumble.
Cole will play a solo acoustic show at the Mint in Los Angeles on April 12.