If there’s one abiding credo to John Cale’s six-decade long, multifarious existence in music it’s the power of friction. From conservatoire rebel at Goldsmith’s College, London, his apprenticeship with modern classical luminaries such as John Cage and La Monte Young to his brief but epochal tenure with the Velvet Underground, Cale has always known that a healthy dose of aggravation often yields interesting results. The Velvets’ one-time manager Andy Warhol knew this better than anyone and Cale followed suit. Throughout his solo career, from 1970’s Vintage Violence to this year’s, Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood, John Cale has fused the irreconcilable. Nobody has a CV like this. His albums move restlessly from MOR balladry to modern classical to art-rock proto-punk savagery. 1973’s Paris 1919, at the time dismissed by its author as ‘Procul Harum’ nonsense is rightfully hailed as a classic but his schizoid trio of Island albums (Fear,Slow Dazzle & Helen of Troy) are, like Bowie’s Berlin trilogy, his musical DNA. While in the VU, Cale was hailed as the avant-garde yin to Reed’s pop tunesmith yang. The pair’s fractious symbiosis continued, long after they parted company, and often in contrary ways. Reed’s 1975 Metal Machine is a nod towards his old sparring partner while Cale’s craftsmanship as a pop writer confounded those that pegged him as purely a purveyor of atonal dissonance.
Production credits veer from landmark debuts for The Stooges & Patti Smith, The Modern Lovers to Jennifer Warnes, Julie Covington and the Happy Mondays. Then there are his collaborations with Terry Riley, Brian Eno and Nico. In the 70s he worked as an A & R man for Warners a charge that suited his catholic ears. This infinite variety lends a singular edge to his own work imbuing it with a dynamic tension that resides in even his softest songs. They could be the reflections of a sentimental fool or the wound-licking of a psychopath (Sharon Tate-referencing Leaving It Up To You vies with Neil Young’s Revolution Blues as one pre-punk’s nastiest moments). 1982’s Music For a New Society (sadly currently out of print) is the evisceration of a singer-songwriter. The same man who penned Close Watch with Sinatra in mind donned a pre-Jason hockey mask & beheaded a chicken live on stage. He even managed to sneak in a celeste and his trademark viola to the garage scuzz of The Stooges debut. If anyone deserves the dubious moniker of rock’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, it is surely John Cale.
In 2010 he was awarded an OBE, a concession from the establishment for which he dyed his hair pink. It is to his benefit that mainstream success has eluded Cale. Where the well of his more successful peers has long since run dry, Cale, unfettered, has moved forward. On last years Playful Things EP, Catastrofuk belatedly laid bare his dictum: ‘Say hello to the future/And goodbye to the past’. He may revisit former works but the nostalgia circuit never stops progress. With 2003’s Hobosapiens and 2005’s BlackAcetate, Cale showed himself to be abreast of modern music, embracing technology and hip-hop(he’s a Pharrell William & Snoop Dogg fan). Dylan, Neil Young and fellow septuagenarian Ian Hunter have all released fine records this year that nevertheless play to their strengths. Like Weller & former cohort Patti Smith, Cale’s refusal to remain in a musical comfort zone, again mirrors the chameleonic, now missing in action, David Bowie.
In the press release for Shifty, Cale describes the record as like looking at an array of ‘precious stones’, all shifting colours and textures (like his oeuvre in general). These 12 songs were written from a foundation of various grooves and rhythms (echoing Gabriel/Bush early 80’s methods). He shoehorns modernity (Beat Detective programming, loops and autotune) into his own idiosyncrasies. Full of febrile edges and sensuous surfaces, the record inhabits a world of mischief, a twilight zone where industrial strength beats accommodate viola drones and Morricone-like flourishes. If two tracks are the album’s dark core it’s the titular tune and Scotland Yard. Both are slices of post-millenial tech-noir (Cale compares his recent offering to Bladerunner), all electronic squeals and elder statesman musical mayhem (a more successful version of Bowie/Eno’s 90’s work). The title tracks rapaciously prowls along like the dirtier cousin of Violator-era Mode while Scotland Yard is a dystopian state of the nation address where last year’s riots, Murdoch and the police all make uneasy bedfellows.
On both songs and elsewhere, strands of modern electronica flicker through the productions shadowy maximalism but pop hooks invariably prevail. Vampire Café updates sometime foil Brian Eno’s ‘Bush of Ghosts ethno-exotica with David Byrne, but the luminous melody sheds light on dark. Like a kaleidoscope or a lap-top-aided wall of sound, elements recede and protrude that would usually form the backbone of a backing track (hear the bass-line at Face To The Sky’s finale). The album bristles with the push of modern Cale with the pull of vintage Cale: the supple melodist and the restless innovator. But for all its envelope-pushing, Cale’s latest can’t help but glance back at the provocateur’s prettiest past moments.
I Wanna Talk 2 U was sculpted from a jam dating back to 2008 with Danger Mouse. The pair were attempting ‘an old school Detroit’ vibe but the result is far from Motown redux (it sounds more west-coast pop). Real-time acoustic guitar, drums and tambourine propel a direct opener, its title recalling Prince’s sensual frankness. Bubbly Chic funk guitars add a further caress but skewers are inserted: Cale’s voice becomes gripped with Madman Johnny psychosis and the track climaxes in a heat haze of Joe Meek ear-bending.
His characteristic tensions run riot then. Hemingway even has him pounding his fists on the piano but it contains such outbursts within the framework of elegant sonic architecture: Trevor Horn’s glossy productions via Broken Bells’ The Ghost Inside. Again, a lyric that mentions ‘the line between a friendly foe’ draws parallels between the author’s pugilistic past & Cale’s own. At the start of his solo career, the Welshman’s voice was considered a peculiar instrument, here his burr has never sounded so confident.
His baritone figure skates across a barrage of off-kilter beats on the Escher-esque Face To The Sky, making him sound like a formative influence of Interpol’s Paul Banks. The alloy of dreamscape sweep and tricksy time signatures is the essence of Cale distilled: alluring and unsettling. ‘Dizzy as a top on a chessboard,’ he sings through the dense musical chatter. Equally disorienting is Living With You. It may dwell in domestic bliss but in such irregular dimensions, it feels like the floor is moving from underneath him
Another jarring confection, December Rain is a downpour of Tennant/Lowe refinement & house whose autotuned shimmer cloaks a lyric of ‘trying to keep the noise down with a knife in my gut’. More straightforward is Mary, one of his disarmingly sentimental surprises (see Anadalucia, Close Watch and many others). To a slightly queasy backdrop of porta-studio chanson, Cale adopts the viewpoint of a bullied gay teenager, his guide vocal and makeshift musical setting only emphasising the fragility of the album’s most naked moment. ’Don’t you worry, the future will come back soon’ he sings at the song’s bridge, a tender consolation over troubled water.
Only Mothra falters, a driving funk workout that lacks the melodic meat, so abundant elsewhere, to hang onto. It’s a minor blip on an otherwise pristine patchwork. Nookie Wood’s closing moments are among the finest constructions of Cale’s career, cumulative in their scope yet forward-thinking in their soundscapes. Midnight Feast is a smorgasbord of ingredients: the carnival-psych of The Doors circa Strange Days, Spaghetti Western guitar, neon-lit synth runs and top drawer slackened beats. The nocturnal lunarscape is full of City Of Quartz dislocation and a reference to Joni Mitchell and the eco-angst of her Big Yellow Taxi. Cale never buckles under such heavy weight, frequently interjecting gliding melodic diversions.
By the time of the closing Sandman (Flying Dutchman) Nookie Wood’s fusion attains an almost blissful apex. Two folkloric figures, one a dream-maker, the other a doomed seafarer, provide perfect twin analogues to journeyman Cale & his happy-sad closer . Alternating between his best ‘Rosebud’-uttering muffled magus voice ( Antartica Starts Here & VU’s Ocean) and the hymnals of Eno’s Faraway Beach & his own Big Black Cloud, Cale past and present merge ecstatically over insistent waves of 808 beats. It’s an apt finale to an album that balances both so effectively. Nookie Wood is a thick forest of the novel & the familiar, sonic disturbance and pop nous. One of the year’s best.