John Cale's on the cusp of a comeback, but his new album is a jarring misstep
If you sit down and listen to the four proper Velvet Underground studio albums in chronological order (not counting the 1973 album Squeeze, which featured no original members), it becomes very apparent that following 1968’s White Light/White Heat there was a seismic shift in the band’s sound.
While the first two albums contained odes to buying heroin, taking speed, S&M, and transvestites shooting drugs and having sex with sailors (and then killing one of the sailors), the third, self-titled album and Loaded are gentler and more pop-oriented; the reason being the absence of one particular member of the band: John Cale.
Cale left the Velvet Underground after the band’s first two records, leaving Lou Reed in charge. While Reed had a love of poetry and free jazz, it was the Welsh-born Cale who brought the experimental edge to the band’s sound, thanks in great part to his pre-Velvets classical training, along with his various works with avant-garde titans John Cage and La Monte Young.
After he left the band, Cale not only went on to record several fantastic solo albums (among them Vintage Violence and Paris 1919) better than anything Reed put out after he was left to his own devices, but he produced albums by Patti Smith, the Modern Lovers, the Stooges, the Happy Mondays, and about a dozen other artists through the ensuing decades. Yet for some reason or another, it is Reed, not Cale, who is thought of as the “Godfather of Punk.” Rock’s most famous curmudgeon is held up to God-like standards even though he’s put out maybe one good album every decade or so.
It’s a sad fate, but things seem to be starting to turn around. Cale got a nice boost of hip credibility by appearing live with LCD Soundsystem in 2007 (for a Joy Division–sounding version of the band’s “All My Friends,” which ended up sounding better than the original), and has been more visible in the years since, playing music and granting interviews as he hasn’t done for some time. This coming January will mark perhaps the greatest stateside note of his return to the spotlight with a three-evening stint scheduled at BAM, one night a tribute to his old friend and collaborator Nico, and two nights performing his classic album Paris 1919. All well and good, but Cale has also released a new album, Shifty Adventures of Nookie Wood, and it threatens to derail the party train before it gets up to speed.
Shifty Adventures starts out strong, with the Danger Mouse-produced track that sounds like it could share a name with a Prince b-side, “I Wanna Talk 2 U,” and it is by far the album’s strongest track, the spooky, funk-laced acoustic rock opens things up strong, but that momentum is largely absent in the remaining tracks.
“Scotland Yard” sounds a little like the Trent Reznor remix of David Bowie’s 1997 song “I’m Afraid of Americans.” Not that this sort of comparison is necessarily a bad thing, but when you look at the album holistically, you get the sense that Cale didn’t really give it his full effort or attention, meandering here and there without really digging in anywhere. The production is the only thing that feels consistent; unfortunately, that’s because it constantly sounds like it resurfaced from the 1990s with little bits of auto-tune thrown in to update the style. Cale tries to cram too much throughout the album’s 54 minutes. It almost seems like the “Shifty adventure” he’s referring to is the series of songs that shift back and forth, slow to mid-tempo; with some tracks sounding like Psychedelic Furs throwaways, while others (like the track “Hemingway”) almost sound like they can be related to contemporary bands like Yeasayer, just with a much older man holding the microphone.
There’s very little to get excited about with Shifty Adventures, as the twelve tracks ultimately all feel quite cold. Cale, who showed with his work throughout the ‘70s and into the ‘80s (in addition to Vintage Violence and Paris 1919, his album with Terry Riley, Church of Anthrax, is essential) that he’s just as gifted a songwriter as his frenemy Reed, gives us a record with a bark much bigger than its bite.
Perhaps it’s more of a lark for Cale, something to pin a tour on and get out to have fun with. My only hope is the bad taste of Nookie Wood is easily forgotten.