John Cale is one of the few musical artists of the sixties and seventies who has aged gracefully, retaining his artistic integrity and dignity, as well. He belongs to an elite class of aging rockers that includes David Bowie, Tom Waits, Lou Reed and Brian Eno, who, instead of reverting to embarrassing, misplaced throwbacks to their youth, have settled into a niche that further solidifies their artistic vitality and reinforces respect among fans. To put it simply, he’s one of the few old guys of rock who’s still cool.
Being cool doesn’t necessarily mean that Cale looks young or appeals to hipsters. That’s all arbitrary. What is important is that Cale is still making good music, flirting with the avant garde whilst playing music that would be considered “pop.” As mentioned earlier, Bowie would be a fitting comparison, more so than Reed, Eno or Waits, who have all delved further into more left-field art forms, though no less interesting or vital. But the comparison to Bowie makes more sense, as both he and Cale are essentially doing what they’ve done throughout their careers — recording rock albums that challenge the conventions of what rock is without alienating the casual listener.
On HoboSapiens, Cale walks a balance between dark intellectual textures and more traditional rock music. The result is intriguing, a mixture that isn’t altogether discordant or “experimental,” per se, but masterfully done and appealing to the senses. Leadoff track “Zen” seems to be aptly titled, as the looped beats and ambient layers give the song an almost meditative quality. Not to be redundant, but again, Bowie comes to mind, especially Heathen, as that album utilized electronics without resorting to the jungle stylings of Earthling or the industrial rock of Outside.
“Reading My Mind” and “Things” almost sound as if they could have come from one of Cale’s solo efforts in the seventies. Both songs are straightforward and catchy, though retaining a literary lyrical style that runs throughout the record. Speaking of which, HoboSapiens contains more references to art, literature and music than “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” name-dropping Picasso, Mondrian, El Greco, Charlie Brown ( followed by a “good grief”), Magritte, Chaucer, Waiting for Godot, Archimedes and Tiger Mountain, unsurprisingly, as the Cale of today occasionally bears a resemblance to the Eno of yesterday.
“Letter From Abroad” is chaotic world fusion that sounds like Peter Gabriel with a healthy dose of distortion. “Magritte” is a slow, atmospheric mood-builder that wouldn’t be out of place in a European heist film, most likely starring Jeremy Irons. But I’m getting distracted…Just about everything here is great, and as we should come to expect from John Cale, delightfully unconventional.
Thanks to Or Music, HoboSapiens offers stateside Cale fans some new material, even if it did come a year late. But in a country where classics like Fear and Music For a New Society have been out of print for some time, it’s a wonder we got a domestic version at all. But lucky us, we got one with bonus tracks! I must confess, though, bonus tracks are rarely a selling point for me. Here, however, they serve as an added “bonus” to an otherwise great album. Now, if we could only convince someone to give Cale’s back catalogue the reissuing it deserves, we’d be in business.
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.