John Cale – MERCY

A masterful insertion into the most indecipherable of back catalogues...

In 1963, John Cale left Goldsmith’s College in London with his viola and arrived at the epicentre of the Lower Manhattan arts scene. One of his first gigs upon arriving in NYC was with La Monte Young, playing long drones as part of Young’s conceptual Theatre Of Eternal Music – an immersive sound project that tapped into Eastern spiritualism and transcendentalism.

I mention this because his work with Young was only tangentially similar to the band he went on to form with disgruntled Pickwick pop factory songwriter Lou Reed, The Velvet Underground. Even within the first two VU albums, Cale was a restless, intense and enigmatic spirit and one whose distinctive, masterful and discordant sonic signature was only fully revealed when he’d left the group after the seminal ‘White Light / White Heat’.

That word ‘restless’ is important. Cale arrived in Manhattan with an ex-pat’s wanderlust and that’s become the only constant of everything he’s ever done. A masterful musical explorer, Cale is comfortable everywhere. That his career – viewed through the lens of sixty odd years at the coal face of adventurous composition – veers around with the unpredictability of a wayward fractal is part of why he remains so important.

‘Mercy’ is, like more or less everything Cale has ever done, completely and wonderfully unprecedented. Here we find him embracing electronics, infusing clinical synths with his arresting vocals, atypical, detuned rhythms and sprinkles of contemplative piano and strings. We find him collaborating with similarly likeminded musical auteurs like Laurel Halo on the crystalline title track, Actress on ‘Marilyn Monroe’s Leg (Beauty Elsewhere)’ and Animal Collective on ‘Everlasting Days’, all artists who have similarly fully outgrown any box they’ve been indelicately placed in.

As with his career, songs like ‘Time Stands Still’ with Sylvan Esso and are atomised, splintered, non-linear. Ostensibly a tender ballad that observes the inexorable passage of time dispassionately, Cale’s philosophical rumination on ‘Time Stands Still’ is transformed into a rich and enveloping texture. Through that gauzy fabric poke shards of abrasive percussion that are as jarring and insistent as the incessant tick of a waiting room clock above death’s door. Unfettered and undeterred, Cale moves ever-forward, only briefly surveying the past with his heartfelt paen to his long-departed muse, Nico, ‘Moonstruck’.

Oscillating between moments of pop austerity, such as the hypnotic ‘Night Crawling’, more irascible, noisy fare like the hopeful ‘Not The End Of The World’, you leave the final moments of the stirring, electro-classical ‘Out Your Window’ marvelling once again at the octogenarian Cale’s indomitable, questing spirit. This isn’t mere voguish reinvention but a masterful insertion into the most indecipherable of back catalogues, and its reliably mutable, endlessly wandering creator.


Words: Mat Smith

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