John Cale, legendary musician and songwriter, and former member of the Velvet Underground, turned 70 years old in March. That’s not notable in itself, but in the context of a still active rock musician, worth acknowledging. Plenty of icons have crossed the septuagenarian threshold — Leonard Cohen is a few years shy of 80 — though few manage to stay contemporary or relevant once they get there. Cale’s former bandmate Lou Reed issued Lulu, his notoriously cringe-worthy collaboration with Metallica, at age 69, for one example. For Cale, however, 70 arrives on the heels of a year spent performing his classic album Paris 1919 in its entirety, and after a decade of consistently strange yet engaging pop albums in Hobosapiens and Black Acetate. The odometer may continue to turn, but Cale’s uniquely idiosyncratic artistic style is unwavering.
That Cale’s new album, the peculiarly titled Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood, is a continuation of the playfully dark textures of recent albums, touched up by a frequent injection of electronic production and beats, isn’t that much of a surprise. As an album it leaps, sometimes nimbly and sometimes awkwardly, from one stylistic conceit to the next, be it fluttery `90s-style trip-hop or synth-heavy post-punk. Nothing is really off limits here; Cale can sound dreamy and wistful, as he does on “Living With You,” or he can dress up in Auto-Tune and give himself entirely over to technology, as on “December Rains.” It’s a noble effort in attempting to keep up with evolving electronic trends, but the problem is that it plays out almost entirely as you might expect. The songs where Cale sounds like Cale work brilliantly. The ones where he’s all too eager to step out of his comfort zone are those that tend to fall flat.
John Cale with Auto-Tune isn’t necessarily the problem, it’s merely a symptom. “December Rains” is one such song that just never really comes together in a satisfying manner. When Cale mentions “Google getting on your nerves” through his Auto-Tuned filter, it comes off as fairly surreal, which is probably part of Cale’s intent, though the ironic juxtaposition of embracing and lamenting technology never works out to be as clever as it probably looks on paper. Yet moments such as these tend to be more limited than those where Cale’s experiments work out more successfully. “Scotland Yard” excels largely because of its energy and momentum, the track a new waver cut from the same cloth as Tubeway Army’s “Are `Friends’ Electric?” The aforementioned “Living With You” is among the prettiest moments on the record, and evidence enough that most of the arrangements on the album need not be so heavily choked with electronics. And the same goes for closer “Sandman,” a gorgeous lullaby of a tune with just enough synthesizer to make it hum in all the right ways.
With an ample supply of truly groundbreaking material in his collected discography, Cale doesn’t need to outdo himself at this stage, nor likely is he trying to aim for any elusive glory beyond music that’s merely engaging and challenging on some level. He achieves as much on Shifty Adventures In Nookie Wood, an album that never fully feels comfortable with itself but offers more than enough in strong songwriting to make up for any experiments gone awry. It’s not a classic album by any means, but Cale’s continuing effort to evolve makes him, in a manner of speaking, ageless.
Stream: John Cale – “Scotland Yard”