Lloyd Cole, Arts Theatre, London

Those at the back, rattle your Blackberrys
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The Independent Culture

If you ever wonder what happened to that brooding, bookish romantic who held court at the student bar, you might do well to catch up with Lloyd Cole (inset). For most of the Eighties he, with his band the Commotions, made a decent pop career out of bringing some literary class to the lower reaches of the charts. On becoming a solo artist in 1990, Cole moved to New York and played the rocker for a few years. But the strain of sporting a leather jacket and a greasy bob while writing sensitive songs about his girlfriend's period pains proved onerous. He got married, had kids and moved out of NYC to the country.

A decade later, Cole has ended up a sly, charming commentator on that most un-rock 'n' roll of subjects: modern middle-class existence and its wrinkles. On his two most recent albums, Music in a Foreign Language and Antidepressant, he sang of corporate corruption, Baby Boomer depression, suicide, white-collar thuggery; all delivered in that oddly gulped vocal of his and carried along by low-key, melodic settings.

Perhaps it's the reticence of his music that gives his songs their lyrical sting, a quality all the more palpable when you hear him play solo and acoustic in small venues (which is how Cole usually performs these days). Standing before us head-to-toe in black, swapping between a couple of guitars, he tells us about how his son's school recently asked him if maybe he could play some songs to the pupils? "Maybe we could play some songs, but not my songs. They're all about divorce."

He's a folk singer these days, by and large, but the "folk" he sings of are the cosmopolitan, sophisticated couples dotted around this cosy venue, worrying about trains home and mortgage rates, cuddling up to one another in the hope that Cole will take them back to the student union disco with "Lost Weekend".

Which he happily does, also picking through gracefully tweaked versions of "Rattlesnakes", "Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken?", "Four Flights Up" and, best of all, "Why I Love Country Music". This last song is one of Cole's finest ballads, of a relationship gone sweetly sour (they tend to do little else in Cole's songwriting).

His fans receive these old favourites more warmly than the songs from the last decade or so. Plus ça change for any artist still hanging around at Cole's age (45), but in this case the slight air of tolerance that greets his solo work tonight is more to do with the fact that Cole very much has his Blackberry-toting audience in his sights. (They may have been happier to see Cole and the Commotions reprise their successful reunion gigs of 2004, but Cole has said that, fun though they were, he and the others don't need the money that badly.)

"This isn't a song you know, but I assure you it's one of the better ones," says Cole, in a typical statement of self-deprecation and self-assurance. It's a distinctive combination, which the audience enjoys, until he turns it on their own lives: "Trigger Happy" is, at a guess, about how it's the prerogative of the young to disdain their elders; "The Young Idealists" is about the dissipation of political convictions into tasteful cynicism.

If heading back early to relieve the babysitter sounds preferable to an evening in Cole's company, you should know that he isn't always this involved. He covers Kris Kristofferson's "Please Don't Tell Me How the Story Ends", and trots out Leonard Cohen's "Chelsea Hotel" - both are breezes by comparison. He's a likeable stage presence, and his tours these days are like get-togethers; audience and performer catching up once a year or so. And each time he fluffs a line or has to restart a song, we're all relieved to see the greying, grown-up Cole laughing off his own mistakes.

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