What to make of poor John Cale? A man who might otherwise be cherished as a restless and fearless underground artist seems damned to be forever left in the shadows of his erstwhile bandmate, Lou Reed, despite being the superior exponent of the Velvet Underground’s daring and innovation in his solo career. While Reed taunted the world with occasional flashes of real genius amidst his steady descent into self-parody, Cale was blazing his underrated trail, one perhaps equally frustrating with its endless zig-zagging, but one which left at least three stellar albums in its wake — Vintage Violence, Paris 1919, and Fear — not to mention a handful of lesser but solid works. That should’ve placed him a good deal ahead of Reed in the eyes of the world, but the Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal knew that he would never drop out of the spotlight entirely if he A) catered to the worst expectations of his audience (Sally Can’t Dance) or B) defied his audience’s expectations in outrageous ways (Metal Machine Music). Cale has been just as mercurial in his career, but his moves have been more confusing than controversial. He could release an album of modern art music, followed by a record of blissful prog-pop, followed by a blast of proto-punk paranoia. Some artists are simply too idiosyncratic, too willful, too unfettered to ever get a bead on, and John Cale is just such an artist.
If some music fans were lucky enough to finally catch up with Cale by the CD era, the man himself wasn’t around to collect his belated laurels. Instead, he was off in the wilds of obscurity again, releasing albums few would buy, although this time around that fate was more deserved. After the early ’80s, Cale started to sound more and more like he was out of ideas at last, a washed-up legend who should’ve simply settled into a comfortable life as elder statesman rather than letting his dignity slip away with subpar output. But Cale has never been like that. I remember when I was living outside of Chicago, a story started making the rounds that Cale had walked into a nearby sandwich shop with a small stage usually occupied by the area’s ultra-low-rent singer-songwriters and asked to play. What in the world he was doing there, or how the frat boys that were the shop’s primary clientele reacted to this obscure rock god are two questions I would dearly love to have answered, but even without that knowledge, it does give one a sense of a man following his muse with no regard for what anyone thinks of him.
This lengthy preamble brings us to the actual object of the review, HoboSapiens, the first new album of his that anyone’s paid any attention to in quite some time. And for good reason. It’s tempting to listen a bit too sympathetically whenever an aging musician who never got his due sounds more energized than he has in a while, but Cale doesn’t merely sound good relative to his last decade or two of work. He sounds energized, period. The drum machines he uses throughout — normally a mile-wide warning sign for older rock stars — are used creatively and never substitute for genuine creativity as they often do in other hands. Cale puts as much thought into them as he does with all the other elements featured on HoboSapiens, which is to say, a whole bunch. Cale stuffs each track with ideas rather than doling them out like he’s on a budget, which is a great thing for anyone and doubly if not triply so for a 62-year-old.
HoboSapiens is still dense and difficult for much of its running time, but the challenge comes from following the author through his many compositional twists rather than sitting through passages that drone on far too long. The handful of outright catchy songs, like “Reading My Mind”, “Things”, and “Things X”, make you wish that he would write more numbers like them, since, despite his impeccable avant-garde cred, Cale has always been strongest when he’s subverting pop rather than ignoring it altogether. But as it stands, those tracks provide sustenance for the stretches when he’s not trying as hard to be pleasant. That part of the album deserves and rewards close listening, as does all of HoboSapiens, and indeed Cale’s career as a whole. This album vis-a-vis Reed’s monument to artistic bankruptcy, The Raven, makes as strong a case as we’ve had for some serious post-Velvets historical revision.