John Cale, Mercy ★★★☆☆
John Cale may be an artist more written about than heard about, something that is unlikely to change on his dense, dour 17th solo album. Mercy is a typically mesmerizing work of sonic layers and shapeless, misshapen songs: moody , atmospheric and as elusive as the end of a bad dream. Having managed to stay off the radio and almost entirely off the charts for more than 50 years, the avant-garde veteran isn’t about to change his life habits now.
The 80-year-old Welshman has led a fascinating and influential career outside of experimental rock. A classically trained viola player and disciple of Stockhausen, Aaron Copland, and La Monte Young, Cale helped embed concepts of dissonance, minimalism, drones, ambient, and serialism into pop culture, with innovative implementations of orchestral and electronica, and an flair for rock. and roll stark. . He is still primarily celebrated as a founding member of the Velvet Underground, a group that was only truly appreciated after they broke up, and in which his role has been unfairly perceived as second fiddle to Lou Reed.
In fact, despite releasing 16 previous solo albums and composing soundtracks for around 40 films (including Basquiat and American Psycho), Cale’s impact might best be gauged by his collaborations. He produced albums for The Stooges, Nick Drake, Patti Smith, The Modern Lovers, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Happy Mondays, and Nico, and also worked with Brian Eno and David Bowie (who called him “one of the most underrated musicians in history.” rock”). ”). Mercy updates Cale’s collaborative flair by bringing in cutting-edge talents from the contemporary fringe pop, including singer-songwriter Weyes Blood, multi-instrumentalist Dev Hynes, stretchy R’n’B vocalist Tei Shi, electronic adventurers Sylvan Esso, Laurel Halo. and Iconoclastic actress and bands Animal Collective and Fat White Family.
Such a hipster congregation is indicative of Cale’s revered status, perhaps especially given the way everyone has been sucked into his sonic textures rather than imposed on their individual personas. Treated vocals and distorted instrumentation weave almost invisibly into mantric drones and cyclical chord progressions. Drum machine rhythms and oblique electronic noises interrupt echoes of orchestral and ghostly synths, while layers of Cale’s thin voice, both starkly exposed and heavily processed, inton imaginative lyrics infused with a biting melancholy and a nihilistic resignation.
Cale has always been hampered by the weedy timbre of his voice. It’s not that he can’t sing, it’s more that he struggles to hold the spotlight, while his cryptic lyrics fall short of the heights attained by the most celebrated wordsmiths he’s worked with. Yet age suits his dry tone and perhaps adds gravity to his poetic dullness. “Lives do matter / Lives don’t matter / The wolves get ready,” he says in the opening theme song, like a former observer reporting on humanity’s apocalyptic follies. He rarely gets much more cheerful than that.
Mercy is not an easy listen, but it is nonetheless inspiring to hear from an octogenarian artist who rejects the comforts of nostalgia, still forging his own wayward path, blazing trails for others to explore as they please. Neil McCormick