sixty-three, enigmatic Welshman John Cale is a concrete maverick whose
lengthy resume has ties to everyone from LaMonte Young, John Cage and
Terry Riley to the Stooges, Squeeze and Lemon Jelly. Cale is widely
known as the primary avant instigator in the Velvet Underground,
responsible for the high-wire experimentalism of classics such as
“Venus in Furs” and “Sister Ray.” His work as a collaborator (Velvet
Underground, Brian Eno) and a producer (Patti Smith, Nico) has the
wattage to outshine his considerable solo output, but to ignore his
prowess as a songwriter and solo performer is to slight a truly radical
His last pop-leaning releases, 2003’s Five Tracks and the subsequent full-length Hobosapiens,
are perfect examples of Cale’s crackling and inventive solo outings.
They buzzed with the energy of a newfound digital production freedom
and were arguably graced with the most consistent set of songs the man
has ever penned. It’s unfortunate, then, that Cale follows those
sparkling releases with BlackAcetate, a comparatively hollow effort that injects the thoroughly progressive cool of Five Tracks and Hobosapiens with a nauseating dose of grunge guitar and Pharrell-lite beat work.
Cale has dropped Pharrell, as well as Gorillaz, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu and Dr. Dre, as primary influences for his work on BlackAcetate.
The nods to Pharrell’s production gleam most brightly across the
album’s architecture, but never more glaringly than on “Woman,” where
the mockery (troubling from such a restless iconoclast) distracts from
an energetic and clingy chorus. Lead single “Perfect” is a bubbling
cross between Orange County punk and David Bowie’s grunge excursion Tin
Machine. It features a gloriously multi-tracked Cale through the break.
“InAFlood” marries Leonard Cohen’s muted phrasing to Randy Newman’s
“Louisiana 1927,” and “Hush” recalls David Byrne’s nervy funk.
Ruminative and modern, “Satisfied” and “Wasteland” are BlackAcetate‘s obvious bridgeways to Hobosapiens and are, consequently, the two solid highlights.
Production techniques aside, it’s the writing at the heart of BlackAcetate that
suffers listeners most. Half-hearted sketches such as “Brotherman” are
devoid of value, and much of the album feels unfocused, as if Cale has
become seduced by the smooth trickery of digital production at the
expense of cogent songs built on icy melodies, slippery poetics and
true invention – three of Cale’s enduring strengths sadly missing
through much of the album’s fifty-three minutes. Thankfully, the 21st century has witnessed Cale as vivid and vital as ever, giving hope that the willful force behind Paris 1919, Music for a New Society and Hobosapiens will see those thrilling creative vistas again.