Prolific composer John Cale kicks off 2023 with a double albumSteve Krakowon January 18, 2023 at 12:00 pm

It’s hard to convey how much the music of John Cale means to me. The Welsh-born polymath cofounded the Velvet Underground, bringing a crucial avant-garde perspective to the band; he’d worked with experimental titans Tony Conrad and La Monte Young back when Lou Reed was still writing teenage doo-wop pastiches. When Cale left the band in 1968, they lost his exploratory edge and viola sawing. They started writing pop songs, and Cale did the same. His 1970 record Vintage Violence features catchy nuggets that reference classical music, creating an elegiac vibe he further explored on 1973’s Paris 1919 (perhaps his best-loved album to date). Over the next several decades he also brought his inventive, eloquent perspective to synth pop, piano ballads, and alt-rock and amassed a body of work in movie music, writing scores and soundtracks for independent films as well as box-office hits such as American Psycho.

Cale’s brand-new double LP, Mercy, is his first since 2016’s M:FANS (itself a reworking of 1982’s Music for a New Society), though he hasn’t left music in the meantime—I caught him in concert at the School of the Art Institute in January 2020. Written over several years, Mercy feels conditioned by the pandemic and other world tragedies and often seems to seek redemption in dark times. The title track expresses this in seething, queasy adult-contemporary songcraft with cold synths and sparse, hollow percussion reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk. “Marilyn Monroe’s Legs (Beauty Elsewhere)” and “Not the End of the World” are captivating bits of illbient tuneage; the instrumental elements cascade in and out, and Cale bathes his smooth brogue and wordless grunts in oodles of delay. “Moonstruck” is a spacey, orchestral ode to Nico, Cale’s Velvet Underground bandmate and longtime collaborator, that recalls his classic symphonic 70s period—it gives him room to breathe in his own sense of time. 

Mercy unfortunately relies a little too heavily on chintzy digital beats and glitchy avant-garde electronica, both of which start to feel dated and played out. The album is also loaded with collaborations, not all of which feel necessary. “Time Stands Still” has a sweet melody (it even incorporates a Christmas madrigal), but the subtle computer manipulations and whispered vocals from Amelia Meath of Sylvan Esso feel redundant. The Auto-Tuned vocal loops that Animal Collective provide to start “Everlasting Days” are hard for me to listen to, because it bothers me to hear the mythic Cale paired with sub-Beach Boys indie cutesiness—and the song’s wafer-thin backbeat is absolutely abysmal.

Some of the guest stars work great, though: on the epic art-rock ballad “Story of Blood,” Natalie Mering of Weyes Blood adds deep, ethereal background vocals that complement Cale’s baritone (I could imagine Nico recording the track in her later period). The thoroughly weird “The Legal Status of Ice,” made with the unfortunately named Fat White Family, relies on thin computer-generated stuff but also uses what sounds like a touch of analog percussion, thus approaching actual rock ’n’ roll. The album closes with the plaintive “Out Your Window,” which starts with Cale on piano and vocals before swirling into a thicker composition. It had me longing for a proper Cale solo album, without the distractions of extraneous musicians or programmed rhythms that sound 15 years out of date. Sure, he’s mined that stripped-down terrain before, but I prefer it when he focuses on his smart lyrics and his talent for summoning moods. That said, Mercy has its great moments, and it may yet grow on me.

John Cale’s Mercy is available through Domino.

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