John Cale on “MERCY” | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Sunday, May 19th, 2024  

John Cale on “MERCY”

A Disruptive Legacy

Nov 06, 2023 Issue #71 - Weyes Blood and Black Belt Eagle Scout Photography by Marlene Marino Bookmark and Share

Joined by a star-studded cast of Welsh musicians (Gruff Rhys, Cate Le Bon, James Dean Bradfield of Manic Street Preachers) who count themselves as his musical offspring, John Cale celebrated his 80th birthday in October of 2022 with a headlining performance at the Llais Festival in his native Wales. Despite the fact that Cale has dipped a cautious toe in nostalgia in recent years, performing as part of a star-studded Velvet Underground tribute concert in 2017, he seems utterly disinterested in discussing his legacy. Ask him about that concert and he replies that he wasn’t celebrating his past work as much as “trying to understand what was interesting about that music.” Ask him about “MOONSTRUCK (NICO’S SONG)”—a song off MERCY, his 17th solo release—and he expresses surprise that he would write about his one-time bandmate, as if his brain conjured the song without his permission. But ask if he realized in 1965 that he and Lou Reed were doing something completely without precedent in The Velvet Underground, and he doesn’t hesitate.

“Yes, we did,” he replies quickly. “I had my hands full with doing avant-garde music with LaMonte Young, as well as everyone else and what they were doing at the time. I just did my best. I really thought that Lou was a talent. It just needed careful handling. Sometimes it happened, and sometimes it didn’t.”

Nearly 60 years have passed since Cale first paired his high-brow musical dissonance with Reed’s raw tales of New York City street life—essentially laying the foundation for indie rock in the process—but Cale remains rooted in those original disruptive ideals. While MERCY continues the (often regrettable) trend of iconic songwriters bringing in high-profile younger artists to moonlight on their albums, Cale is still defying expectations, using his musical guests more as extra colors in his palette than as signifiers of his legacy. When Natalie Mering of Weyes Blood, whose voice Cale praises as “steady, with a great tone,” appears on “STORY OF BLOOD,” she does so hovering wraith-like over warmly unraveling synth textures. Similarly, when Animal Collective’s Avey Tare and Panda Bear—who Cale approvingly describes as “jumpy”—turn up on “EVERLASTING DAYS” they are barely recognizable, their voices clipped and mutated. Sylvan Esso, Tei Shi, Laurel Halo all make appearances, but Cale remains the album’s unquestioned animating force.

MERCY finds Cale in a ruminative mood, threading existential quandaries and references to real world devastation through dreamy soundscapes and hypnotic electronic pop. For an artist who has always been drawn to the dark side of human nature, the last decade has provided no shortage of inspiration, so much so that Cale says he wrote and recorded around 80 songs since 2012’s Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood. “I have some anger that needs dealing with,” he says, implying that preparing the backlog of songs for release will provide a necessary emotional outlet. “I know my nature. I know what drives me and what it’s going to take to put all of these records out in one form or another.”

It’s a testament to his inexhaustible creative restlessness that there remains no fixed notion of what a typical John Cale solo album will be. It seems just as likely that he’ll spend the next decade making chamber pop or drone experiments as it is that he’ll continue experimenting with electronic production. When asked if he spends any time reflecting on how his current work fits within a career that has seen him crossing paths with everyone from Aaron Copland and John Cage to Iggy Pop and Patti Smith, he scoffs at the question. “If there’s one way to guarantee nothing will happen it is to do something like that,” he says flatly. “Cataloging everything you’ve done—I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in different ways of expressing myself. If I’m lucky, it will work.”

[Note: This article originally appeared in Issue 71 of Under the Radar’s print magazine, which is out now. This is its debut online.]

Support Under the Radar on Patreon.


Submit your comment

Name Required

Email Required, will not be published


Remember my personal information
Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below:

There are no comments for this entry yet.