It almost goes without saying that John Cale‘s new album MERCY is a dark and occasionally unsettling record. In other news, water remains wet, and donuts remain delicious. Although it would have been fun if the original Dark Lord of Rock had cranked out an album of sunshine pop, he hasn’t. Instead, he’s reached out to hip young things like Weyes Blood, Sylvan Esso, Animal Collective, Dev Hynes, and Tei Shi and made the kind of record you’d expect Cale to make. Only more so.
At 80, he could almost be excused if he released an album stuffed full of Velvet Underground-lite material with cameos from a handful of his contemporaries, but MERCY is very much au courant. His last album, 2012’s Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood, was not his best work. MERCY is better, and that’s in no small part to the quality of his cohort. It’s still a million miles away from blues-based rock music, so Cale aficionados need not worry. There’s also a bit of dream-pop, so brace yourselves.
In an industry seemingly filled with vocalists trying to sound like Mariah Carey or that chap from Nickelback, it’s lovely to hear Cale’s soot-blackened tenor. It sounds almost the same as when he intoned “The Gift” on the second Velvet Underground record, except a little more weather-beaten. On the title track, Cale sings, “I’m looking for Mercy more and more”, in a voice that is both pleading and dismissive.
Despite having easy access to any state-of-the-art tech he could ever want or need, Cale has opted for an almost primitive backbeat for most of this record. Maybe he missed the brutal primitivism of Moe Tucker’s untutored approach to percussion so much that he recreated it electronically. On MERCY, Bontempi-style drum box beats tick along in the background, almost as if he was making a demo recording in 1975. That basic approach works very well on “Noise of You”, the standout track here. In this tune, Cale adopts a mutant dream pop approach to excellent effect. If there was going to be a single release from MERCY, this would be the best – and possibly only – choice.
In spite of MERCY being littered with guest contributors, Cale is skilled in how to employ them. They never overpower or water down the DNA of any of the pieces. Amelia Meath of Sylvan Esso is used to superb effect on “Time Stands Still”, adding a lovely vocal backdrop to one of Cale’s more melodic compositions.
One of the most effective pieces on MERCY is “Moonstruck (Nico’s Song.)” A string section adds a swirling backdrop behind a simple, stark Cale vocal, while Destani Wolfe adds some details. It’s a bleak lyric: “You’re a moonstruck junkie lady, staring at your feet / Breathing words into an envelope / To be opened on your death.” And that’s the first verse. It’s not so much a tribute as a semi-inverted eulogy. It’s hard to gauge if Cale is mourning her passing or something darker is going on. Either way, it’s compelling.
The closing song, “Out Your Window”, is particularly interesting. Cale takes to the piano, carving out a simple, relentless structure for the strings to fall behind. The lyrics seem to concern Cale trying to convince someone not to end their life by leaping out of a window, although at the tail end of the track, he sings, “If you’re wanting to go, take me with you.” Joint suicide? Well, that’s a very John Cale subject matter, isn’t it?
Mercy is not an easy listen. It has lighter moments, but they are like Fools Gold – you think you have found one thing, but it quickly turns into something far less shiny. Then again, it’s hard to be upbeat in 2023, with its litany of sadness and suffering. With track titles like “Night Crawling” and “The Story of Blood”, one might think that Cale has been listening to nothing but Marilyn Manson since his last record came out. Fortunately, Cale is a skilled writer and musician and pulls the material back from the edge of self-parody in good time.
Mercy combines darkness with beauty on a knife edge, and while the arrangements, lyrics, and vocal delivery are all swathed in the dark, they are all very well measured. Nothing becomes overly morose. One of the advantages of having a lifelong career working on the fringes of popular music is that Cale knows his craft. He can take the bleak and inhospitable subject matter and give it just enough life to make it a rewarding listen for those who partake. It’s a delicate and risky maneuver, but Cale has managed it here.