For whatever reason, John Cale’s contribution to the more outré sounds of the first two Velvet Underground albums has been largely overshadowed by his late bandmate’s outsized persona and cultural legacy. Perhaps it’s his more mercurial quality that prevents him from quick categorization, as is the case with Lou Reed. Having originated in the burgeoning school of minimalist modern composers like John Cage, La Monte Young and Terry Riley, Cale brought a decidedly different approach to the Velvets gritty proto-punk. Listening to their first two albums against their post-Cale output, they almost sound like an entirely different group, the only through line being Reed’s street-punk lyrics and disaffected delivery.
Proof of this can be readily found in the sharp contrast between White Light/White Heat’s closing avant-rock epic, “Sister Ray”, and it’s follow-up’s lead-off track, “Candy Says”. While there were certainly hints of this sound throughout their first two albums, the more pop-leaning sensibilities were always cut through with Cale’s strident atonality and modernist approach to musical composition. Not that Cale wasn’t capable of making his own achingly beautiful pop records (look no further than Paris 1919 for the best example of this), rather he simply seemed more interested in pushing the form to its often illogical extremes.
Because of this, his recording career has largely been a hodgepodge of stylistically dissimilar albums that prevent there from being a decidedly Caleian sound the way there is with Reed. Ranging from minimalist recordings with La Monte Young’s Dream Syndicate through to his own strident explorations into atonality, pushing the boundaries of popular music well before Reed embraced gorgeously grating feedback on the polarizing Metal Machine Music. In addition to his work has a solo artist, Cale proved to have an ear for the future heirs to the underground, producing everyone from Nico to the Stooges to a young Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers and myriad points in between.
Where his former band mates continued down a stylistically similar path to that forged with the Velvets, Cale constantly bounced back and forth between a host of styles and ideas, never content to simply settle for one sound over another. Having explored the more caustic extremes of his sound on his previous few albums, the turn of a new decade, following the decline of a punk scene he somewhat unwittingly helped birth, afforded Cale an immensely broad palate from which to pull. Having long since established his bona fides within the noisier elements of the underground, the hauntingly stark, gorgeous melodies permeating 1981’s Music for a New Society came as quite a surprise.
From opening track “Taking Your Life in Your Hands” on, Cale crafts a series of sparsely arranged, largely keyboard and acoustic guitar-based songs that find him updating the sound and feel of his early solo work for the new decade. Gone are any traces of harsh dissonance and atonality, replaced by a more melancholy, spectral pop sound the envelopes his poetic, fragmentary lyrics. Instead, Cale delivers some the most gorgeously affecting music of his career in tracks like “Thoughtless Kind”, “Close Watch” and “If You Were Still Around”.
Only on “Changes Made” does Cale’s voice raise much above a raspy whisper, becoming something close to mid-period Tom Waits exploring the gravely edges of his range. Here too the electric guitars and clattering percussion return, breaking the somnambulant spell cast by the preceding tracks. Music From a New Society offers more overt nods to Cale’s classic upbringing. “Damn Life” cleverly builds its melody out of the “Ode to Joy” section of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, while “Rise Sam and Rimsky Korsakov” is a spoken-word piece built atop music by the titular composer.
From here, the collection is augmented with a handful of outtakes and demos from the same time period, each very much in keeping with the sound and feel of the original album. But as this is a John Cale project, it’s no mere reissue with a few tacked on bonus tracks. Instead, Music for a New Society / M:FANS, as it’s been dubbed here, offers both a remastered version of the long out of print original album alongside an all new take on the album, cheekily identifying it with the acronym M: FANS.
By taking this approach, Cale creates a direct through line between the last 30-plus years of his recording career. Showing himself to still be in surprisingly good voice, there’s little in the way of drastic vocal differences between the new and old recordings. Here too, Cale makes the case for the music’s contemporary relevance by updating the sound and feel of the arrangements to make them more in line with his current musical proclivities without sounding too far from the original source material.
If anything, these reworked versions carry with them the added weight and misery of the intervening thirty odd years and all that changes, both personal and professional, that have occurred since then. There’s an additional gravity to Cale’s performance, here augmented by his current band and aided by the likes of the Dirty Projectors’ Amber Coffman who lends her vocals to a wildly altered “Close Watch.” Even “Thoughtless Kind”, with its electro-heavy beats and auto-tuned and a-melodic vocals, manages to work better in its drastically reimagined format than it has any right to.
In the hands of a lesser artist, these reinterpretations of classic songs would feel little more than a cheap cash-in, lacking any sort of artistic merit and integrity. But in Cale’s hands, the music remains just as vital as before, updated for a modern audience while providing a definite point of reference. To hear the sonic progression between the two distinct albums is to hear an artist constantly evolving, reevaluating and creating at a vital pace. In this, Cale proves himself to be, if not the most culturally significant member of the Velvet Underground, certainly the most musically so. Here’s to hoping for a similarly thoughtful treatment to more of his back catalog.
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