Warmth below an old man's skin
Mercy - John Cale: (Domino)
I confess my age: I missed John Cale’s Australian tour in 1975 (being 11 is no excuse, of course) but caught him at the Tivoli in Adelaide in ‘83, and again a few years later. Heard and have many of his albums, but confess that some are hit and miss, while others are (for me) spectacular.
I-94 Barflies will recall that Cale was one of two “foundation members” of the Velvet Underground (which didn't stop him from being booted when Lou Reed felt threatened) and, shortly after, he produced a record by a bunch of laid-back savages from Detroit. If you're not sure who I mean, ask The Barman, he'll fill you in.
The record company's website says: “Cale’s first full album in a decade, moves through true dark-night-of-the-soul electronic torment toward vulnerable love songs and hopeful considerations for the future with the help of some of music’s most curious young minds. Cale has always searched for new ways to explore old ideas of alienation, hurt, and joy; MERCY is the latest transfixing find of this unsatisfied mind.”
Yep, that last phrase, “unsatisfied mind” is exactly what I've always thought of John Cale, pretty much since I heard his early solo works. He seemed to me like he just didn't feel comfortable in himself.
But who the hell can know? I don't know the bloke, and at the moment I've only got hazy memories of interviews in the latter quarter of the last century (phew!) to guide me. For me, John Cale's insecurity, his dreadful predicament of being such at a such important musical axis so early in his career - and he knew how important the VU were, and it only got worse as he got older,
I'm sure - those were the things which made listening to him so extraordinary. There always were a lot of layers. And if there weren't as many layers, you wondered.
Anyway. The Guardian's writer tells us that he's a “titan of cool” but is also quite dismissive of him by the second para - he was the “other person in the room” playing on “Lou Reed's demos” ... another review where (again) the clever journo puts the not very “with-it” or “modern” legendary muso in their place. How dare you not think like they do. Astonishing, really. So many journos play the game of “you're not THAT good”, and come out of it giving the air of someone who has brought the TABLETS OF REASON DOWN FROM THE MOUNT, and I suppose everyone all goes, "hey, yeaaaah, that's RIGHT" when, of course, it's all swaddling.
God help you if you're a living legend, seems you're a legitimate target for all this ghastly one-up-ya-ship. I keep reading reviews like this, where the reviewer seems to have put the record on while doing some other task, like hoovering, or I don't know, mowing the lawn. They seem to hear it, but not listen. Manufactured insight.
Pitchfork's review doesn't play this game, by the by; in fact their review does such justice the LP that. Its review begins: “When an icon returns after a lengthy absence, it’s tempting to feel a kind of condescending compassion. My god, one might think, he’s still doing it at 80. And when he returns in the enviable company of bright young(er) things, it’s tempting to feel cynical: Look who’s trying to stay current.”
So, a bit of perspective. People make records, of their songs, and if they do it with some regularity it usually seems to be a fair indicator of where their head's at, at the time.
A lot of the recent interviews seem to have focussed on John Cale the avant garde noisemaker - which is a bit daft as first, "Mercy" is nothing like "Sun Blindness Music", and second, Cale is being well and truly confessional and introspective here. Revealing and concealing, the best way to write a decent song. Some listeners write about 'dreamy' and 'post-modern'; neither term really works for me.
At 80 ... faaaark. I don't know about you but my old body has been creaking, popping and tending to doze off at odd moments for several years now. How the hell anyone can even think of treading the boards at 80 years old is utterly beyond me.
So, like I said. He's itchy. Uncomfortable. Gotta do it. There's an urgency. And yeah, he's got a few other folks with him. But, like Iggy, and a host of others, he's always worked with other people. Cale was never a jealous, brittle collaborator, which is how Lou Reed always struck me. Cale has always embraced working with folk - often folk who are well and truly on their own planet. On "Mercy", seven of the tracks on the vinyl issue - half the LP and 7" single - feature a different collaborator.
Given that the only one of Cale's collaborators I recognise is Fat White Family (on "The Legal Status of Ice", which seems appropriate), it makes no difference to me. I'm here for the music and songs. The other collaborators are Actress, Weyes Blood, Sylvan Esso, Animal Collective, Tei Shei and (on the 7" single) Tony Allen. Like I say, nope, no idea.
Here's an excerpt from a Spin interview:
Spin: What type of artist is ideal for you as a collaborator? Is there a through line?
Cale: There is. I think it really is a partnership. You really get to know people in a different sense. Collaboration to me is really understanding other people’s point of view. And you’ve got to have this creativity going on between the two of you, and if you’re generous about your approach to the music, then you’ll get somewhere meaningful.
The title track opens the proceedings and it's simple and beautiful. Unlike some musical artists, you can hear the thread to his earlier works straight away, and the music - well, it certainly has a semi-Christian feel, but that's one of the themes. That time is a sort of roundabout, where
Lives do matter
Lives don't matter
Nothing, nothing at all
Days and days were spent in anger
Nights were filled with lust
Lift me up and show me mercy
There's a great sadness here. And great beauty. "Mercy" (the LP) is a gorgeous, glistening gossamer of music which seems to fade in on you before fading out, leaving your chest heaving and your pants unaccountably damp. And your eyes.
"Marilyn Monroe's Legs (Beauty Elsewhere)" is similar - by this stage on some earlier LPs, Cale would be scathing, howling ... here, as with the rest of the LP, he lets the music set the stage.
Using Monroe as part of the title is, of course, an intended distraction. Never mind that he says in the Spin interview: “I wanted to have a song about Marilyn Monroe without mentioning her name”; he also says “it was the most abstract song on the record', which it is. The thing about abstract lyrics is that they take on a meaning, or indeed, several meanings of their own, irrespective of what the writer intended - an abstract song becomes a text in its own right far more quickly than (say) any song on the first Beatles LP.
So, no, I won't dwell on the meaning of the song, but boy, does it sweep you along, “late to the party”... There is such wonderful use of space here, it's cavernous, almost luminescent, you can almost see the oak beams vaulting eighty feet above your head.
At this point, if I had to compare where John Cale's creative djinn is at now, I'd think the only ones comparable would be Scott Walker or Bjork.
Well, so no, you won't be dancing to "Mercy". Maybe you'll lie on the floor after a couple of vodkas and just ... melt, like your ice-cubes, into the floor. "The Noise of You" is a beautiful love song ... for a love long gone... Personally I think this one has too many musical echoes of 1988 synthwave but, in context, it works. Perhaps because, like wet silk, some things are always extraordinary.
Another stand-out is "Story of Blood", which takes us first, into a hotel lounge at 4am, then into the meat of the matter ... via a tonality which seems to have annoyed several reviewers (I think they associate the tone with a period, which is weird, really ...)
To be honest, I have to say that this kind of creepy chill-out music isn't something I'll want to return to in a hurry, but ... well, it is damn good. The surface of the song seems to be quite pretty, if not beautiful. But ... it's well and truly unsettling. Which might explain the tone - perhaps Cale selected it because it's a kind of musical fingernails down a blackboard (remember blackboards and chalk?); or perhaps because it's a very effective way of indicating how time moves and dates us all.
The following song, "Time Stands Still" simply reflects the Europe we know, hit with climate change disasters, despair and the chaos of multiple differing agendas. I rather like this one, particularly the harmonium (I suppose that's what it is). Curious, on the surface "Time Stands Still" is a lesser song, but repeated listens I find it's better than "Story of Blood".
I'll remark on one more song; after that it's time for you to venture forth. "Moonstruck (Nico's Song)" is far more straightforward than most of Nico's solo works (which Cale produced, as I'm sure you don't need reminding). One of the most personal songs so far on the LP, it nods to Nico's hallmarks (such as that harmonium) without being remotely like her.
So afraid, of your own shadow,
Following close behind
How did you cover, so much territory
Eating up the miles
And miles and miles to go
And miles and miles to go ...
Don’t be afraid of this life
Be afraid of this life
So terribly sad, so very real and so utterly beautiful. Curiously, while I often found her work cold and incredibly brittle, but intensely beautiful, I find this Cale LP to be beautiful, intensely moving, and yes, a touch cool, but there's warmth beneath an old man's skin.
Now then. I've taken you through the first LP (of the double LP). And that's your lot, sunshine. Either you've figured out enough from what I've written that you're curious enough to dip a toe in the water (or plunge in with a mighty splash), or you're not.
Cale, from that Spin interview: 'The mystery of it all is really what you’re playing with.'
The album doesn't seem to be available on Bandcamp, so if you don't feel like ordering online (with attendant horrific postage), consult your local dealer.
No, not that dealer. The record shop you don't go into often enough.
1/2 (at least)
Tags: mercy,, lou reed, john cale, velvet undeground, domino, fat white family, actress, weyes blood, sylvan esso, animal collective
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