Now that I’ve killed off three-quarters of my 5 readers by relentlessly blogging Ruskin, I can start writing about the stuff I’m really interested in – no, not Philip Pullman (tho that’ll come in good time), but pop music. In particular John Cale, one of those few of my youthful obsessions that have lasted.
Barely. I bought my first Cale albums a long time ago – I think the first one I got was 1979’s Sabotage/Live, and the first one I bought new, as soon as it hit the shelves, was 1981’s Honi Soit. (That, mes enfants, was back in the day when new records actually existed in corporeal rather than cyber- space; not only that, but they were manufactured out of a petroleum byproduct called “vinyl,” and you had to be careful not to leave a new record in the back of seat of your mom’s car on a hot day…) So let’s say that that’s 25 years, more or less, of buying the new John Cale record and responding in a predictable way:
1) 1st listen: Damn, this is the greatest thing since Never Mind the Bollocks!
2) 2 weeks in: Well, most of it’s no more than alright, but there are some really great tracks on there!
3) 2 months later: Is this guy ever going to make another album like Helen of Troy or Slow Dazzle?
To be fair, Honi Soit, which I listened to earlier today as part of a chronological iPod trek thru the entire Cale catalogue, is still a pretty amazing album – but all of his “pop” albums since then seem to fall into the narrow band between “workmanlike” and “embarassing.” At least I thought so until he released 5 Tracks in 2003. It followed one of his simultaneously most pretentious and embarassing records, Walking on Locusts (which came pretty close to making me sell off the collection). 5 Tracks was signs of life, even if they were signs of a guy down in his basement with ProTools. Even better was the followup, Hobo Sapiens, which had the critic-folks making comparisons with Radiohead. Yeah, right; I think they were mostly relieved that the old chap (Cale turned 60 in 2002) had made a pretty decent pop record with lots of interesting textures, & hadn’t gone entirely over the deep end.
Last year’s Black Acetate, which I bought back in February but haven’t commented on until the thing sank in (see above temporal gradation of responses) is better than either 5 Tracks or Hobo Sapiens. Indeed, it’s his best album since Honi Soit, though it’s not quite in the same category as his early work. Maybe part of that is the grittier textures – more real guitars & basses (creeping rockism on my part, I guess); part of it is the less pretentious lyrics. He’s been reading less Dylan Thomas and listening to more top 40, which is all to the good.
I keep expecting the moon & stars of Cale, which probably comes of having stumbled on his music when he was at the top of his game (& when I was at a particularly impressionable age). I always bracket him with Brian Eno: the second bananas in their original bands who have turned out to be the more interesting ones to watch in the long run. Back in the day when Roxy Music was a powerful hit machine, who would’ve thought that the bald weirdo who’d made those funny noises on the first two records would have longer staying power than Bryan Ferry? Of course, the post-Velvets careers of Lou Reed & Cale let us know who was the real heavyweight within a couple of years: when Cale was making the fantastic run of albums that included Paris 1919, Fear, Slow Dazzle, & Helen of Troy, Lou was giving us Sally Can’t Dance, Coney Island Baby, & Rock and Roll Heart.
Noted: Lee Ann Brown’s The Sleep That Changed Everything (Wesleyan, 2003). I’ll be honest – sometimes I’m not entirely comfortable with Brown’s balladeering. Not as poems, but as performances: they seem to often to confirm a certain Beverley Hillbillies stereotype of Southerners in much of their audience that I as card-carrying Southerner have a deeply ambivalent relationship with. But much of this book is dazzling, & in an unexpected way. It’s so funny, so light-hearted, & simultaneously so deeply felt that it puts this prematurely wizened & cynical bastard to shame: as Brown paraphrases Rilke, “Change your tune – change your fate.”