John Cale’s solo curriculum vitae stretches back to 1970, some of his records being underground essentials. His style in the past has been eclectic to say the least, ranging from John Cage-inspired avant-garde classical compositions and art-rock to punk, for a phase in the late seventies. Cale’s Midas touch has supported the likes of Nico, Brian Eno, and Nick Drake, and he even threw a chicken’s head at a crowd during a show in East Croydon in 1977. Not many people can say that.
And oh yeah—before all of that, he was also an experimental force behind a little band called The Velvet Underground. But nearly forty years later, Cale seems to have toned down his avant-garde experimentation in favor of a more Lou Reed-like pop sensibility on Black Acetate. This album goes back to neither the accessible sensibility of Vintage Violence nor the anarchy of side two of White Light/White Heat. The songs on this record are like disparate parts of a successful collage or rhapsody. All of the myriad Cale hallmarks are here, juxtaposed together to make a solid, quirky work of art.
The record opens with the very danceable, ’60s sounding “Outta the Bag,” followed by the spooky, but driving “For a Ride.” “Satisfied” is a somber lament reminiscent of Vintage Violence. This is what we would expect from the Cale that we knew in the ’60s and ’70s. The funky “Hush” would be a sexy makeout/dance party hit if sung by Prince rather than an aging, jowly Welshman. Cale seems to absorb some more modern influences, and adds his own iconoclastic twist. He says that contemporary pop groups such as Bloc Party inform the style and sound of his new album. I don’t hear the resemblance. The influence of modern indie-pop and early-mid-nineties grunge is evident, though. “Turn the Lights On” could be a rock-your-balls-off Pearl Jam song and “Wasteland” sounds like a downtrodden Alice in Chains acoustic track. Even the influence of Yo La Tengo can be heard in songs like “In a Flood.” “Perfect,” an interesting, though completely awful track on Black Acetate, should hopefully be taken as ironic. It sounds like a pastiche of the sort of music made by sixteen-year-olds playing shows at suburban VFW halls with Squire Stratocasters. The last song on the album, “Mailman (The Lying Son)” sticks with the listener the most, sealing it all up with a confusing closure. The best way to describe it is as repetitive whining and noise over simple acoustic folk. “Mailman” leaves you feeling like a clueless museumgoer trying to `get’ a piece of modern art that appears ugly on the surface.
Overall, Black Acetate is an erratic, eclectic collage of different styles and influences that leaves the listener both confused and astounded. Few planets in this galaxy are ready for John Cale. The fact that he is still making interesting music proves Cale to be a truly brilliant artist. However, a casual first listen of Black Acetate doesn’t do it justice, and it lacks any single-worthy tracks. Fans of the Velvet Underground and Cale himself might take to this album quickly, but the taste of the general public has yet to catch up before music like this can become popular.
The Velvet Underground—White Light/White Heat
Prince—Sign O’ the Times