ONE OF MY main bugbears about the perspectives of the common or garden critic is that most of them feel the necessity of assuming a position that never wavers, as if it was some kind of warfare. And I guess it is, in a way: a war against ordinariness, inconsequentiality, abhorrent aesthetics, and so on.
But taking a set position can be tricky, especially in the case of someone like John Cale. Like another great pop-cultural icon, Neil Young, Cale is as capable of greatness as he is of appalling poop, the sublime and the ridiculous playing seesaw, and sometimes even commingling.
It’s rarely truthful taking a reductionist position about a cultural movement, style or artist, as handy as that can be. Cale is a case in point, as is the most famous rock group he’s associated with, the Velvet Underground. I’m not a VU fan, particularly, and feel that their significance has been blown out of all proportion. But while the group’s kingpin, Lou Reed, has never been of interest to me, I’m a huge admirer the singer on just one VU album, Nico, along with her occasional producer, John Cale.
Taking a long gaze down John Cale’s career path astounds, amazes and appals. As a producer, he’s been involved with so many important albums (and some really terrible ones) that it’s hard to get your head around. As an artist, he’s been all over the show, from pre-VU atonal drone experiments to the exquisite baroque pop of Paris 1919, from the junked-up savagery of the live Sabotage to the ‘mature’ reflections of Music For A New Society. And lately, he’s been getting into electronics.
Now hitting 70, the academy-trained singer-songwriter, on his first album in seven years, tries so hard to retain currency and stay in vogue that he comes across as clumsy and hoof-footed.
On the opening track (and the only one co-produced by Dangermouse), ‘I Wanna Talk 2 U’, Cale almost gets it right. As elsewhere, the vocals are processed, and the sound is synth-sodden, but the wah-wah guitar turns it into a virtual world you don’t mind spending some time in.
From there, it’s pretty much all down hill.
‘Scotland Yard’ makes a few token gestures to the 21st century with its electronic detritus, but at its (empty) heart, it’s a throwback to the kind of plodding, auto-pilot nonsense he churned out on mid-‘80s albums like Artificial Intelligence.
I’ve always admired the breadth of Cale’s lyric-writing, and it’s hard not to feel respect for someone who is just as likely to write about political intrigue as matters of the heart, or on ‘Hemingway’, discuss a writer’s detour into war and an obsession for bullfighting. Unfortunately, however, the song itself is forgettable.
And I love the fact that Cale has got a sense of humour, even if it is, as one would expect, cloaked in gothic cloth. ‘Nookie Wood’ is just that, almost like a piss-take of Nick Cave plagiarising Faulkner, but he doesn’t quite carry it off.
The same applies to ‘December Rains’, where it appears that he’s attempting to subvert Autotuned vocals away from the pap-pop mainstream. Except that the reality is a boring, unfocussed piece on communications technology that’s frankly, embarrassing. Give me Rihanna, any day.
And on it goes. It could be that I’m just not getting it, and that there’s something profound going on that needs soaking in, but to this listener, Cale sounds baffled and punch-drunk, and the songs seem half-finished. I want to like Cale, because he’s a true maverick, and an old-fashioned incorrigible old auteur. But no, not this time. GARY STEEL
Sound = 3.5
Music = 2.5