Only John Cale would write a jolly song about driving and then put a sound effect of a...
Nick Reynolds 2003-05-30
Only John Cale would write a jolly song about driving and then put a sound effect of a car crash in the middle. And only John Cale would set it in Italy, with bystanders chattering excitedly in Italian at the road side. Still, from the sound of it, no one is killed.
From the earliest days of the Velvet Underground through a distinguished and diverse career, he's always been a master at combining the melodic with the macabre. At the age of 60, his creative juices have been revitalised by new technology and computers, and working with one of the producers from Lemon Jelly. The results have been released on the excellent 5 Songs E.P. from earlier in the year, and now this full length album.
Many of the tracks are more like sound sculptures than songs. And although there is plenty of ingenious and ear catching detail, too many of them share the same slow stately tempo (''Zen'', ''Caravan''). Sometimes it rambles, with lyrics that hover on the edge of pretentiousness.
But there is some great stuff here. The aforementioned car crash ''Reading My Mind'', with its cheerful wolf howls and bouncy rhythm is a high point. So is the relaxed pop of ''Denver'', which is also radically remixed as ''Things X''. ''Magritte'', which seems to be about an art theft, really works. Its musical montage unfolds with a disturbing logic, and Cale sings in a cracked, ageing voice creating real drama. ''Over Her Head'' ends the album brilliantly, a sparse piano ballad which suddenly explodes into driving rock complete with groaning viola.
Cale fans will gobble this up. If you are a casual admirer you may find 60 minutes a bit indigestible. But you have to admire his ability, after forty years of making music, to reinvent his working methods and make it all sound fresh. For John Cale, it feels like there's still something at stake.