The unexpected comeback of Welsh songwriter and Velvet Underground veteran John Cale was one of 2003’s happier musical stories. Seven years earlier, Cale had been promoting his generally uninteresting Walking on Locusts LP when he told Rolling Stone about his fascination with Beck and the “Beck generation.” He wasn’t blowing smoke for the interviewer. Tucking away into his Manhattan home for the next few years, Cale experimented with editing technology like Apple’s ProTools in the hopes of evoking the cut-and-paste sound he’d liked so much about Beck. The album that came out of this, Hobo Sapiens, was an instant classic.
But anyone who expected Cale to continue his success with Black Acetate will be disappointed. The new album sounds like it was recorded in a rush, as if Hobo Sapiens had gone triple platinum (if only!) and the studio needed him to grind out some new stuff in time to make the One Tree Hill soundtrack. To keep going with the Beck metaphor: If Hobo Sapiens was Odelay, this is Midnite Vultures.
The warnings are loud and clear with “Outta the Bag”, the goofy leadoff track. Over a burbling funk synthesizer and crunchy, phased guitars, Cale tries on a goofy falsetto to sing lyrics like “You got yours / I got mine / You gotta be careful”. He retunes his rich voice for the next song, but nothing much happens between the sludgy guitar chords of “For a Ride”. And “Brotherman” is even worse. Vocal samples, piano stabs, and other irksome noises get piled one on top of another as Cale mumbles about “Uncle Sam” and “proper courtyards”. When he sings “I write reams of this shit every day”, you want to shake him and say “Take a day off and write something good.”
Thankfully, the album picks up pace with “Satisfied”. The first and best of a handful of ballads, it’s the kind of song Air would write if they were hyper-literate Welshmen instead of hyper-literate Frenchmen — evocative bells and synthesizer sounds chime as Cale sings about two lovers contemplating their affair. The dark, languid “In a Flood” and “Gravel Drive” work almost as well, the latter becoming more and more hypnotic while its cryptic lyrics and David Lynch creepiness build steam.
A whole album of songs like these would have hung together beautifully, but that isn’t what Cale set out to make. The rest of the tracks are energetic rave-ups and rock songs that probably gave him the best time when he was recording them and toying with his Mac. “Perfect” is one of those bouncy, shameless pop songs that always find their way onto his albums, and it’s not bad. “Wasteland” is cut from the same mold, and its choppy acoustic guitar and piano hooks would have made a snug fit for an ambitious Britpop band’s third single. But the other songs range from slightly-amusing to dull. The collection of cock-rock riffage called “Sold-Motel” actually sounds like Mountain, although to be fair no Mountain song ever had a hook like “Wild Tchapoutoulas, have you heard?”
Although the album doesn’t hang together well, the few great songs are dark, rich, and instantly memorable. That’s the norm we’d come to expect before Cale’s wonderful comeback. But with his newfound ambitions and the use of those studio tricks he clearly adores, Cale is capable of much, much more.