So the Velvet Underground were influential. Yeah, yeah. We get it. Even we drilled it into readers’ heads last summer, just in case anyone didn’t already own the group’s first three records. And if you think we forgot about Loaded, you’ve got another thing coming. But the individual songwriters in VU had their own moments of greatness, post-Velvets. There’s no denying how wonderful Lou Reed’s Transformer is, nor can one find fault with the stark beauty of Nico’s Chelsea Girl. Still, and I say this expecting a little criticism, nobody’s post-Velvet career was as impressive as John Cale. From Paris 1919 to Vintage Violence to Music For A New Society, his ’70s and early ’80s output was nothing to sneeze at. 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 an easy-going verse. 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 next track, “The Man Who Couldn’t Afford to Orgy,” by contrast, owes more to Brian Wilson than Roxy Music, The Velvet Underground or the Weimar Republic. 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 you believe in what he’s saying. 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,” sounding like 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 interesting listens.
The funky, weird “Momamma Scuba” closes the album, sounding like something off of Bowie’s Young Americans, put through Cale’s art house filter, mind you. If nothing else, it reinforces the notion that side two is more abrasive and weird than the first half of the album, but all of it is very highbrow and artsy, no matter how you slice it. Cale’s brand of pop was not quite commercial enough to earn him millions in sales, but it earned him almost eternal respect for being an innovator. It’s hard to say what he pioneered, exactly. And it’s hard to say who, exactly, he’s responsible for influencing. And it really doesn’t matter. Any attempt at imitation would be futile. Only Cale can pull off this combo of classic pop and experimentation without a hitch.
Similar Albums/Albums Influenced:
Brian Eno – Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy
Nick Cave – The Good Son
Roxy Music – Country Life
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.