​​Lloyd Cole’s “So You’d Like to Save the World”: A Song Best Paired with 21st Century Existential Angst and a Morning Metro Ride to Work

In 1882 Friedrich Nietzsche declared “God is dead” and then in 1945 Jean-Paul Sartre posited, “existence precedes essence”. But nearly 50 years later Lloyd Cole sang, “you might call it ultraviolet radiation / it’s only sunlight”.

Born in the post-war world of 1961, musician and songwriter Lloyd Cole grew up in England, later studying English literature and philosophy among the ‘80’s post-punk generation at the University of Glasgow. A time in which he was fated to meet the future members of his band and form Lloyd Cole and the Commotions. In 1984 they made a name for themselves in the British indie scene with the release of their debut album Rattlesnakes, a jangly record with allusive lyrics informed from Cole’s literary background. The band produced two more albums - Easy Pieces (1985) and Mainstream (1987) that to their dismay, didn’t quite meet the Rattlesnakes standard among the critics - the group disbanding shortly afterwards. Despite the break-up, Cole embarked on a solo career, releasing his debut album Bad Vibes in 1993.

“So You’d Like to Save the World'' belongs to this very album. Upon first glance the album cover greets its listeners with a picture of a brooding Lloyd Cole, who sulks in a Schopenhauer-esque disposition. He dons a suit and a cigarette droops in his hand while being cornered; providing the overall illusory image of a world closing in on him as the pessimism of the Bad Vibes album name looms above. 

This portrayal of the cynical antihero ensues on the track where Cole, as the speaker, urges a romantic interest “[who’d] like to save the world / to take one person at a time and start with [him]”, paralleling a poet’s invocation of the muse; a notorious convention of Epic poetry enacted by the poet when in need of guidance. Epic poems typically revolve around a tedious voyage of some sort, in hopes to overcome obstacles from external forces. They also look warily at the future civilizations. In this vein, Cole takes his playful courting, climate change anxieties of the early 1990’s and turns his song into an epic poem of its own. In 1989 the Los Angeles Times published an article, headlining how: “Global Warming Is Expected to Be the Hot Issue of 1990s: Some scientists studying the greenhouse effect say the sky is falling”, an ethos that clearly contextualizes “So You’d Like to Save The World”.  The chorus directly addresses these worldwide concerns, when the speaker asks the song’s heroine if they “really [cried] / when they saw that hole in the sky?”. Solace is then offered when Cole delivers those resounding lyrics: “you might call it ultraviolet radiation / it’s only sunlight”, emphasizing how even in the most harrowing times, the sun’s burning rays don’t have to be a source of detriment.  And the sun’s natural essence (to put it existentially) can just be sunlight—not in a climate change denying way of course, but in a way that is ultimately grounding and reassuring. 

Or maybe, in a way which I've decided to coin as: desperate. Although Cole’s song is devoid of philosophical jargon, it (similar to the works of Nietzsche and Sartre and any other existentialist alike) is imbued with the very pathos of existentialism; the uncertainty, the angst and the disillusionment that popularly reared its ugly head in the ‘40’s and that echoes furthermore in the song’s vulnerability. This desperation evades a rightful name from being such a visceral and therefore ineffable feeling but ultimately provides a catharsis to listeners that is sympathetic in its brutal poignancy. Even the mere lyric of the song title, “so you’d like to save the world”, isn’t posed as a question but as a warm glint of hope; an affirmation of possibility. The song could very well be the older cousin of “Bittersweet Symphony” by The Verve. And maybe that’s why it makes me cry on my morning metro rides to work.

Accompanying the last verse of the song is a flaring guitar melody that happens to be the musical equivalent of  the sun reaching its zenith on those languorous summer days. It scintillates in the air and gives way to perhaps the most heartwarming moment of the song where Cole sings, “so you’d like to save the world / I’d really like to help you” then finally admitting, “I’d really like to be you for a while”; resulting in an overwhelming release. It’s also the moment when Cole as the antihero, takes the Kierkegaardian leap of faith; the subjective action one makes despite their inner-cynicism and angst to believe in something that cannot be objectively proven. For Cole, it’s not solely believing in the “Motorola generation chic” woman he serenades but more so in the notion that opening one’s self up to human connection, especially in times of peril, is what makes life meaningful. 

The song’s environmentalism isn’t the only subtext at hand nor the only catalyst for existential angst. “So You’d Like to Save the World” and the Bad Vibes record collectively evince themes of making the transition from one’s halcyon days and onto those that eventually become disillusioning. In Cole’s case it was the transition from being 23 and in his heydays of making commercially successful music in Glasgow alongside his band, to being uprooted further into adulthood that made him wear the suit of growing up in order to trudge along with the present. I’ll make my final plea: listen to “So You’d Like to Save the World” and as Cole, in his winsome tone of voice suggests, “free [your] inner child”.