When some people started to criticise Paul McCartney’s setlist, and even his vocals, during his headline set at Glastonbury last year, one observer had their moment in the social media sun, writing in a viral tweet: “Just to be clear, you’re only allowed to mock Paul McCartney if you’re also 80, have written Eleanor Rigby, She’s Leaving Home, Blackbird, Yesterday, Let It Be, Can’t Buy Me Love, Helter Skelter and Band on the Run, and still feel like getting out and playing live.”
Granted, fellow octogenarian John Cale doesn’t have quite the illustrious songwriting credits to his name. Yet his influence as one of the founding members of The Velvet Underground – whose legacy has been deemed far greater in the full scope of history since they parted ways – cannot be ignored.
Though he’d only last four years with the band, owing to eventual tensions with Lou Reed, Cale was no doubt a driving force in their avant-garde approach, even if he’d originally moved to the States on a scholarship to study classical music.
In fact, as a marker of his experimental impulses, after his sacking in 1968 (with his final gig played in September at Boston Tea Party), Velvet Underground drummer Moe Tucker would lament that “when John left, it was really sad… And of course, this was gonna really influence the music, ‘cause, John’s a lunatic. I think we became a little more normal… It was good stuff… but the lunacy factor was gone.”
“Lunacy” might have its negative connotations, but when you’re stretching the norms of what’s artistically possible, it’s a noble attribute indeed. And on MERCY, his seventeenth solo album (something that shouldn’t go unnoticed either), we find Cale with that same cutting-edge drive.
Perhaps the first most notable aspect of the album is its inclusion of some highly exploratory present-day artists, including producer and DJ Laurel Halo (on the opening title track), electronic-pop duo Sylvan Esso (on ‘TIME STANDS STILL’), and psychedelic champions of the noughties Animal Collective (on ‘EVERLASTING DAYS’).
Even some of Fat White Family – a revolving door of a band for whom keeping up with its members is a fool’s errand – appear on one of the album’s most challenging tracks, ‘THE LEGAL STATUS OF ICE’, albeit faintly compared to their usual rambunctious selves.
Cale’s first new album of original songs in over a decade, MERCY is the result of the singer’s musings over the turbulent period those years have been. As a result, the record is laden with weighty dystopic concerns, from his pleading for “mercy, more and more” on the opening track through to ‘NOT THE END OF THE WORLD’, in which you feel him repeating the title as much to console himself as opposed to stating it with any conviction.
In fact, the eerie, whirring productions on both tracks, in addition to manic album closer ‘OUT YOUR WINDOW’, where Cale resembles an older, Blackstar Bowie, lends an end-of-days feel to the whole album.
The Weyes Blood-featuring ‘STORY OF BLOOD’, however – one of three tracks to have been released ahead of the album – provides a ghostly harmony that, whilst not entirely clear, gives the impression of more timeless, celestial matters than the mere past decade. “I’m going back to get them, my friends in the morning / Bring them with me into the light,” Cale murmurs.
Though less common, there are some periods of more melodic, upbeat respite. ‘NOISE OF YOU’ has a luscious humming beneath Cale’s vocals, even if that sits either side of an intense, stringed crescendo.
‘NIGHT CRAWLING’ has a smattering of hi-hats, and arrived as the album’s first single, along with an animated video of Cale and aforementioned Bowie bar-hopping around New York, as they did in the ‘70s; if you needed reminding of the sort of illustrious company Cale kept, the video serves such a purpose.
‘I KNOW YOU’RE HAPPY’, my personal favourite, seems almost like a purposefully positive tonic for the tone of anguish that’s mostly present on the album, with Colombian-Canadian singer Tei Shi hitting the high notes on vocals and Dev Hynes, aka Blood Orange, on guitars. The song might be the most cheerful sonic period in the album, even if Cale is singing “I know you’re happy when I’m sad”.
Whilst, conversely, other moments feel a bit claustrophobic and too experimental for their own good – such as the rather oddly titled ‘MARILYN MONROE’S LEGS (beauty elsewhere)’, and the frantic ‘THE LEGAL STATUS OF ICE’ – ultimately these become a small price to pay.
As one astute observer might put it, you should only mock John Cale if you’re also 80, have had a long-running solo career following your time with one of the most influential bands in history, and are still attempting to be as experimental as ever on your latest album.