Words for the Dying, the 1989 album just reissued, feels as if it stands outside of discussion. Lyrics primarily by Dylan Thomas, classical music composed by John Cale, and production by Brian Eno, it is what it is, which is, in part, an artifact about the convergence of three artists. That museum-like aura, though, means neither that it lacks vitality nor that it’s a perfect album.
The bulk of the album, “The Falkland Suite” includes the disc’s first six tracks in a work and refers to the Falklands War, which was occurring as Cale began this piece. He did settings for various Thomas poems and ended up using the four on this album along with instrumental interludes. Cale’s composition and arrangement skills for orchestra are fine, if undemanding, but the album’s effectiveness hinges on his ability to bring Thomas’s words into a musical setting, and Cale doesn’t always succeed.
“There Was a Saviour” fits Cale well, even opening with lines he could have penned: “There Was a Saviour / Rarer than radium”. Cale interprets the poem well, maintaining a meditative mood while using harps to suggest the angelic and the brass section to build up optimism. Cale exposes the poem’s conflicted nature by providing a slight darkening in the orchestra’s bottom voices. This mild touch keeps the poem from lifting off more than a close reading should allow, but the music never gives into those leaning, leaving the lyric as a form of ethereal resistance.
Thomas’s “On a Wedding Anniversary” offers no consolation to those suffering loss; its power comes in part from its formal restraint around loud personfication, and Cale matches that delivery with his music. Cale does overdramatize a bit when he revisits the phrase “Death strikes their house” with an excess of gloomy enthusiasm. He insists too emphatically on the emotional response, while shifting the poem’s focus too muchfrom the experience of loss and its aftermath and onto the moment of dying (fitting for his album’s title perhaps).
Cale’s objective shouldn’t be to perfectly render Thomas’s intentions in a musical form; he should—and does—work to open new meanings in the poems. In “Lie Still, Sleep Becalmed”, he successfully focuses on the worried plea of the poem, leaving the specific imagery of the gurgling would and the ocean sounds to construct a piece that sounds like a participant in that scene might feel, as nervous as sad, and on edge. With the choral voices singing rapidly, the anxiety seems to stretch the narrator(s) to the the limit, yet the music maintains the reserve of strangers in need together.
Cale’s most bizarre reading comes on Thomas’s most famous poem, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”. Cale opens with a chipper repetitive phrase that strips the poem of its urgency and frustration, replacing it with the sort of encouragement that Stuart Smalley might offer. The singsong-y music presents the speaker as someone who would take your hand and skip with you into darkness, rather than the distraught son who would shake his father’s shoulders in the mistaken belief that his dad would breathe again.
After that strange track, Cale gives us the two parts of “Songs Without Words”, piano pieces that please without being memorable. Cale’s melodies circulate well enough and he creates a mood not incongruent with “The Falkland Suite”, but he never drives home anything of great beauty or invention.
The disc closes with an Eno collaboration, the odd song “The Soul of Carmen Miranda”. This piece hinges on a somewhat abstract lyric (in which dances are personified as dancers), but its mood builds well around ambient tones and a basic melody. Eno’s studio effects work well here, the first time it sounds like an Eno record (which is to his tribute on both this track and its eight predecessors). The album’s slow dissipation makes sense, as does (in their way) musics on a fruit-headed dancer’s seductive and resistant soul. As you would expect from Cale, the presence of a pop artist inspires a strong ending from another performer’s high art construction.