The influence of The Velvet Underground is as well known if not more so than their body of work, having invented noise rock with White Light/White Heat, pioneering slowcore on their 1969 self-titled album, and eventually perfecting pop with Loaded. But the individual songwriters in the Velvet Underground had their own myriad moments of greatness, post-Velvets. There’s no denying how wonderful Lou Reed’s Transformer is, and likewise stark beauty of Nico’s Chelsea Girl and the chilling Marble Index still reveal new and unsettling rewards to this day. Yet the member of the band whose career has proven the most consistently strong is arguably John Cale. From Paris 1919 to Vintage Violence to Music For A New Society, his ’70s and early ’80s output marked some of the greatest moments in all of art rock. Yet, song for song, it’s Fear that best displays his odd, yet powerful songwriting best.
More accessible, yet harder to pigeonhole than his two albums with the Velvets, Fear is a pop album made without compromise. Cale’s vision is carried out with the aid of members of Roxy Music, teetering between noisy rock music, cabaret pop, gossamer ballads and everything in-between. Every song is a little gem, imperfect and yet flawless at the same time. It’s polished enough to be considered “pop,” yet tweaked enough to be considered genius.
Opening with the ominous “Fear is a Man’s Best Friend,” Cale pounds on three piano chords before segueing into a verse of sedate misdirection. As he sings, “You know it makes sense/don’t even think about it/life and death are just things that you do when you’re bored,” the volume raises once again and rubbery bass, drums and screeching guitar bust through the doors, converting the song into a nice ballad into a destructive mess. “Buffalo Ballet” and “Emily” both show Cale’s knack for lovely, simple piano ballads, done in a most unconventional way, mind you. And “Barracuda,” with its bluesy riffs and quirky keyboards, could have been a hit in an alternate reality.
Around track six is where the album turns into something more sinister and abstract. “Gun,” a seven-minute rock stomper, seems to be a parallel to Brian Eno’s “Third Uncle,” all driving rhythms and crashing guitar chords. Cale’s storytelling is as harrowing as ever, painting a gritty portrait in graphic detail:
“Ten sticky thumb prints on the door and the sink
But nothin’ saw nothin’ – just smell the stink
Five hundred mug shots and a hundred to one
Four forgotten and the rest just won’t come“
“The Man Who Couldn’t Afford to Orgy,” by contrast, owes more to Brian Wilson than Bryan Ferry. Its between-verse lines by Judy Nylon are delivered breathily and nearly orgasmically, to which Cale remarked, “She makes Jane Birkin sound like Hayley Mills.” The album climaxes with the simple ballad “You Know More Than I Know,” a powerful, yet oblique song about God only knows what, yet Cale’s delivery is so impassioned that what he says comes across as earnest and honest, regardless of its cryptic meaning. The high point comes during the chorus, where Cale sings “No one listens to it/they don’t believe it/but it’s the only way for me,” giving the indication he’s about to break down. It’s a beautiful and uncomplicated song that never dips into ambience or noise, as Cale has been occasionally known to do, yet still makes for one of his most gripping pieces of music.
The funky, weird “Momamma Scuba” closes the album, sounding like something off of Bowie’s Young Americans, put through Cale’s art house filter. Cale’s brand of pop was not quite commercial enough to earn him millions in sales, but it earned him immeasurable respect as an innovator. Much like the Velvet Underground, his influence is nearly impossible to chart. It’s easy to understand why; only a visionary like John Cale can pull off this combo of classic pop and experimentation without a hitch.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.