Music Reviews
John Cale

John Cale

POPtical Illusion

Domino

John Cale’s autobiography is titled What’s Welsh for Zen. Zen isn’t the first thing to come to mind when considering Cale’s early work with the Velvet Underground and as a solo artist. He’s been a mercurial character, jumping from minimalist drone music with Terry Riley to bludgeoning art rock albums with titles like Fear and Sabotage. Cale has said that he gets bored easily so moves from one challenge to another. In recent years, Cale has been a big proponent of hip-hop, saying that’s where the most interesting production work is being done these days.

POPtical Illusion employs some hip-hop production ideas when it come to building up sounds and rhythms. The music, for the most part, is built up around washes of electronics and drum loops. Cale’s vocals are calm and meditative. On a cursory first listen, one could be tempted to write the album off as Eno-esque ambient pop. It takes multiple listens to reveal that under the calm surface, Cale is still exploring the dark regions of the human psyche.

The song titles give away that John Cale isn’t sailing into his 80s as a mellow pensioner. Just consider “I’m Angry” and “Setting Fires.” On “Setting Fires,” he asks, “What’s it worth to you / To come and see me burn? What’s it worth to you / To see me cry?” The song “Funkball and Brewster” begins with the lines, “Tell me to go to hell / I’ll be trying my best, to do it.” In their own zen-like way, these songs are every bit as disturbing as “Guts” or “Fear Is Man’s Best Friend.”

POPtical Illusion isn’t all candy-floss-colored despair. Cale throws in some uptempo, cheery tunes as well. My favorite song on the album is the bubbly “Davies and Wales.” The song percolates on a keyboard riff with a snappy drum program underneath. Cale sings, “If I could make your day even better / We’ve got plenty of time, to make it work / I wanna take you downtown when you visit / It’s a call, it’s your call, it’s your call / If you call it right / Make it happen for you in the future / It’s a better life than in your past.” “Shark – Shark” is a similarly upbeat song destined for some existential disco.

POPtical Illusion is the product of a spurt of Covid-inspired creativity. During lockdown, Cale wrote over 80 songs, which explains why this album came out so quickly after last year’s Mercy. John plays most of the instruments on the album himself with assistance from his co-producer Nita Scott and guitars from Dustin Boyer.

John Cale has always been a bit of an acquired taste. It’s taken me a while to warm up to his hip-hop-inspired recent music. Like all of Cale’s best music, it rewards those who give it time to let the weirdness ferment.

John Cale


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