As a musician and artist, John Cale really has nothing left to prove. He is in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Velvet Underground, one of the most important rock bands ever. He has produced landmark albums for everyone from Nico and Patti Smith to the Stooges and the Modern Lovers. Though he has never been a best-selling artist, he has enjoyed a lengthy, uncompromising solo career, collaborating with Brian Eno and former bandmate Lou Reed among others. Ironically, to most people, Cale is best known for a cover version, his beautiful interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”.
Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood is Cale’s first album of new material in seven years, and only his third since 1996. He turned 70 this year. You might imagine this would be fine time for him to take stock, sit back, and enjoy Elder Statesman status, maybe releasing an Adult Contemporary-leaning album of standards or duets.
But you know that didn’t happen.
The title alone tells you that on Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood, Cale is back to his scheming, challenging, and, well, shifty ways. And, improbably but not exactly shockingly, he has created one of the best albums of his career.
“Seducing down the door” has become one of the more indelible lines from Cale’s repertoire of free-associating lyrics, but Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood does no such thing. It bangs on the door like someone who has emerged from a thick, dark forest, chased by a throng of evil walking trees, then breaks it down before anyone has a chance to answer.
In recent years, Cale has become captivated by, of all things, hip-hop, and Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood reflects that, in terms of production if not composition. The beats are big, thick, and chunky. The bass often throbs, and there are plenty of electronic squiggles in the periphery. Lead track “I Wanna Talk 2 U” is a typically funky, punchy, catchy production from Danger Mouse. From there, though, Cale takes the reins himself, and things only get more interesting and seedy.
“Scotland Yard” is a hard-hitting smackdown, getting into a dirty groove and never letting up, while “Vampire Café” staggers along oddly, turning the idea of a hip-hop rhythm in on itself as it goes. Even as he eases off the heat, Cale is still stoking the fire, stirring up the pot. “Hemingway” rides a seemingly innocuous midtempo beat, Cale amused by Papa’s “Drowning in pina coladas / As the bulls run round the ring”. But then Cale begins shrieking “He had a thousand yard staaaare” as cacophony erupts behind him. The track ends with what sounds like an exploding piano. So much for innocuous, then.
The brilliance of Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood is that the dissonance and oddity never sounds forced. Rather, it’s a product of Cale’s unbridled enthusiasm and creativity. Also, there is plenty of melody and even beauty here, too. The piano-led “Face to the Sky” is undeniably pretty, even dreamy. That impression lasts, even after the mood is punctured by industrial noise. “Living With You” meshes towering harmonium chords with acoustic guitar flourishes before it, too, takes a turn toward the sinister. “Mary” is basically a straightforward, midtempo ballad, with an eerie synthesizer in the background. And closing track “Sandman (Flying Dutchman)” is an entrancing, gorgeous aural dream, droning/soaring like a hymn, a chorus of Cales hailing the titular ghost ship.
A couple ill-advised bouts of Auto-Tune notwithstanding, Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood is not a hollow attempt by a long-gray artist to co-opt hip-hop as a fountain of youth. This album is more dynamic, more enthralled and enthralling, than most of what artists a third of Cale’s age are making. And there is enough noise here, enough glitches and distorted vocals and guitars, to lend a heavy, not to mention timely, almost goth, late-1980s feel to the production as well.
As usual, Cale’s lyrics are opaque, the sounds of the words seemingly more important than what they are saying when strung together. His voice has become lower and more gruff over time, but he can still hit the notes, and the underlying sense of benevolence is still audible, sometimes winking through the disquieting moments. When amid the slinky dirge of “Midnight Feast” his voice suddenly takes flight in an unexpected, weightless chord change, you are reminded the classically-trained Cale composes songs as much as he writes them.
Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood achieves a balance between uncompromising, avant-garde sound experimentation and pure melodic beauty that is among the most seamless and convincing you will hear all year.
Not every septuagenarian rock’n’roller can get away with an album title like Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood. Cale can, with some flair to spare.