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To anyone arriving at the astonishing catalogue of works by John Cale, how to plunge in is a bit like looking at a map of the globe with an open air ticket and wondering which country to fly to. The classical fusion of The Academy In Peril and the similarly orchestral haunts of the Dylan Thomas-inspired Words for the Dying? The stately soft-rock baroque of Paris 1919? The sophisticated rock’n’roll savagery of his mid-70s trilogy Fear, Slow Dazzle and Helen Of Troy? The distilled pensive beauty of Music For A New Society and the similarly sparse live overview Fragments Of A Rainy Season? Or Circus Live, the much more electrically charged career overview 15 years later? The diverse pop-centred excursions of Vintage Violence, Honi Soit and Artificial Intelligence? The more recent brooding rhythmic palate of HoboSapiens and blackAcetate? Or one of his nine film soundtracks, collaborations with La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Brian Eno or his erstwhile colleagues in The Velvet Underground, Nico and Lou Reed. There is no other CV on earth like John Cale’s. No other musician or creative mind.
So he’s a tough act to follow, even if you are John Cale, in what is, incredibly, his sixth decade of music-making. And yet Shifty Adventures In Nookie Wood, his first full length studio album since 2005’s blackAcetate, is not just a brilliant addition but another progression, another ‘country’ to visit. It’s a record of brilliant modernity that at times echoes former glories, thus inter-mingling the spirit of Cale present and past, with a sense of both wisdom and youthful mischief, of music both disciplined and restless in its nature. Music that began as various rhythms and grooves but has ended up as 12 distinct and richly melodic songs with varying and shifting layers of textures and moods, with lyrics both allegorical and deeply personal. Music, if not for a new society, for a new decade and a renewed vigour.
After all, as a teenager Cale was already determined to be, “a living composer, not a cataloguer of the dead.” And as he sung in ‘Catastrofuk’ from 2011’s Double Six EP debut Extra Playful, “Say hello to the future/ And goodbye to the past/ Hurry up through the present.”
“You have to get out of where you are at the moment, and start afresh, in music and everything else,” Cale ventures. “I’m pretty impatient. I like new awkwardness."
And what an exhilarating, intriguing, ‘awkward’ journey it’s been for this self-confessed classical composer who happens to love rock’n’roll. From subverting his classical upbringing in Wales with radical experimentalism in the early 60s, where his teachers at London’s Goldsmith’s College awarded him the “Most Hateful Student” award after performing a La Monte Young piece for piano with his elbows and an original piece that required screaming at a potted plant until it died, to representing Wales at 2009’s Venice Biennale and receiving an OBE medal in 2010. But acceptance has never been Cale’s agenda. Not one move over the course of his work has pandered to expectations. One answer to the perennial question of what becomes a legend most, could be to not stand still. You think Cale’s love of hip-hop technicians such as Pharell Williams, Snoop Dog and Danger Mouse is a mere fad rather than innate curiousity? You believe Cale’s use of auto-tune on …Nookie Wood tracks such as ‘Face To The Sky’, ‘December Rain’ and ‘Mothra’ (as well as Extra Playfull’s ‘Pile A L' Heure’) represents kowtowing to any notion of popular taste? More fool you. Cale has been experimenting with sonic disturbances for decades. The discomfort of going blindly into something is when he feels most engaged.
But ‘awkward’ and ‘mischief’ are what lies behind the album’s title.“Nookie Wood is a mischievous place, a place of fantasy where people can hide,” he explains. “A dark, fantastical place, with a strange, warm breath and sweat. It calls after people and they feel as though they must get there - a playground for all who encounter it. But many need to leave before their sense of reality is overrun by the 'goings on' in Nookie Wood.”
Cale also thinks the title track’s choppy dynamic sums up the album’s spiritual core. “It’s a good wraparound, that song, which was my response to something I'd written a day or two prior that was just too sweet! I wasn’t interested in masking it, but I wanted to use the annoying little rhythm track I'd just made, to create a hint of tribalism in my dark swamp where naughty things happen! By design, when I write, I try to go somewhere I haven’t been before, to get something fresh. I’m inspired by modernity and a great deal of variety. Each song is reaction to what I wrote before, so there are no duplicates there. There are songs on the album about Hemingway, Scotland Yard, and then more straightforward songs such as ‘I Wanna Talk 2 You’.”
The last three songs Cale lists happen to be the album’s opening trio. ‘I Wanna Talk 2 You’ came from a collaboration with Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, who in 2008 was producing The Shortwave Set’s second album Replica Sun Machine and asked Cale to contribute (he’s credited as “viola, synths and atmospheres”). The track had been unfinished until now, “to see if it felt as close to the album that I'd envisaged. I'd wanted an old-school Detroit vibe, on tambourine, bass and drums, but it had to be about something other than a broken heart or the philandering cheater.”
By comparison, ‘Scotland Yard’ resembles a Detroit of the future, with its electronic squeals and organ peals over unrelenting beats. For Cale, “It’s as if the narrator always knew something was not quite right with the blatant deception occurring under the noses of the famed police - Murdoch and his cronies had far too much confidence in their abilities to break the rules.” But Cale is no pointed social commentator: “you have to balance things properly. Because you don’t want to come along preaching. It’s better that people are unsure so they have to think about things.”
The pounding, earthy track named after legendary writer Ernest Hemingway - whose escalating tension features Cale’s best screams for years - comes from a place of “feeling angst as a beloved writer - knowing things about the world that was only revealing itself all too slowly…I had FUN pounding the piano into a percussive mess on this track!”
Every track reveals a process of construction. On ‘December Rains’, “I was feeling all tech-y, glitchy and began with a beat and my viola…I might try a proper 'house' mix of this song sometime!” he threatens. The album’s most delicate track, ‘Mary’, is an example of “songs that seem to drag me along for the ride as I'm writing. I start off and have no idea where I'll end. I'd been remembering too many horrific stories of bullying against gay students and I began singing these words. I'm pretty sensitive about how I work with my vocals, but I left this original take as it felt exactly as it was meant to be heard - fragile, unsure and full of hurt.”
The bass line to ‘Vampire Café’ reminded Cale of a vintage vampire movie, with viola, accordion, drums (in real time and looped) cradling a haunting mood, built on a lurching drum pattern. ‘Mothra’ – the fictional Japanese monster of moth/butterfly extraction, “embodies the essence of identities lost and found with masks, cover-ups, journeys to places that aren’t real and heroes existing in the most unexpected places - my mind for one. I had a blast on this one between the drums, vocals and the idea of resurrecting Mothra.”
The album’s closing trio of tracks exemplifies Cale’s mastery of mood, sublime musicianship and extracting similar performances from his regular band, guitarist Dustin Boyer (who also engineers the album) and drummer Michael Jerome , with Cale himself playing a lot of bass; “mostly I try to do things all myself, to put my own stamp on it, which makes it very personal to me.”
In turn, Boyer’s nylon guitar playing tangles with Cale’s viola drone on ‘Living With You’ as Cale confesses he, “found a way to write about a sort of nice sentiment and not feel terribly sappy about it!” The drums and dark bass line of Midnight Feast’ mirror, “a feeling of a dark night's wandering around the atmosphere, searching for something.” Which might be found in references to the Swiss Alps, Italy and American freeways. The closing ‘Sandman (Flying Dutchman)’ has echoes of Cale’s mid-70s vintage (Ship Of Fools’, ‘Cable Hogue’), with physical roots in the past too, namely Cale’s vintage Telecaster guitar “and an old tweed amp. It reminded me of those old ‘60s surf guitar records, so I started playing a riff, added several layers of viola and began dreaming of the lonely seas. Of course, my version of that romance had to have some unsettling 808 in it to portray the cacophony of a seafarer.”
Shifty Adventures In Nookie Wood exemplifies Cale’s insatiable appetite for the new, which means he is very much at home on Domino / Double Six. “The label is a breath of fresh air, with its finger on the pulse of all these strange little nooks and crannies, new songwriters who have their own little quirks,” he says.
Never resting, always progressing, leading us into mischief and many other places beside, John Cale is one giant Nookie Wood where anyone could get utterly and effortlessly lost for a lifetime. Enter here…
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