Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: John Cale MERCY

Double Six/Domino
Double Six/Domino

John Cale is tasked with talking about his past a lot — understandably so, considering his legacy both with the Velvet Underground and on his own — but he has always been pressed firmly on what’s next. To be an artist, in the timeless sense that Cale is, is to be perpetually unsatisfied, always thinking about how you could do things differently, if not always better. In the past six decades, Cale has been responsible for many masterpieces and some duds. That’s the risk one takes in the hunt for transcendence. Cale is what we could all hope to be at 80: constantly curious, eager to learn, adapt, try new things. MERCY, his first album of original songs in a decade, is a testament to his restless creative spirit.

Cale has transitioned into his role as an avant-garde elder statesman. He’s the sort of figure who gets profiles in The New Yorker and The New York Times in quick succession; he’s at a place in his life where he’s a focal figure in vivid documentaries about events that happened over a half-century ago; he’s the kind of artist one rushes to call “underrated” while he’s still with us. But MERCY rarely feels tied to all that baggage. He confronts ghosts, but on his own terms. There are songs dedicated to Nico, David Bowie; there are songs about his own mortality. But as Cale intones on one of the tracks here: “It’s not the end of the world tonight.” He’s looking forward. What Cale sees out on the horizon is sometimes bleak, apocalyptic — but when hasn’t the future looked like that? He manages to find beauty in desolation, the little joys in knowing that his end, but not the end, is near.

MERCY is a slow, ponderous album. Its songs meander and diverge; they float around in sticky, intoxicating whispers. The album never feels like it’s in a hurry — it’s sumptuous, dramatic, ready to tease out the possibilities of every composition that Cale has come up with. We have all the time in the world. It boasts an impressive guest list: Animal Collective, Weyes Blood, Actress, Laurel Halo, Sylvan Esso, Tei Shi, Fat White Family. They represent a newer generation of artists, who worship and admire Cale’s music and his tenacity. They’re eager to meet him where he’s at. Those collaborators are often subsumed into Cale’s larger creation, but they’re no mere bid for contemporary relevance: You can sense the true satisfaction that Cale gets from traversing out into the sonic unknown with someone by his side.

Those team-ups result in the album’s best songs. “STORY OF BLOOD” is remarkable, a gothic simmer delivered in a weary moan. Cale’s deep register serves as a haunting contrast to Natalie Mering’s, as they come together to marvel at how odd and terrifying it can be to wake up to another day: “This is the story, the story of blood/ It starts in the heart/ It moves all around, wake you in the morning/ And brings you down.” Actress propels “MARILYN MONROE’S LEGS (beauty elsewhere),” providing the kind of palpitating beat that you can feel in your teeth. And Tei Shi, along with an assist from Dev Hynes on acoustic guitar, is instrumental to the album’s most effervescent moment, built up around the shimmeringly sad chorus: “I know you’re happy when I’m sad.”

The album is not without its clunky moments. Some of Cale’s political writing is a bit on the nose. “The Legal Status Of Ice,” a climate change song with an assist from Fat White Family, contains an unfortunate refrain of “Ding dong, the witch is dead.” And the opening title track, while its heart is in the right place, doesn’t get off to a good start with: “Lives do matter/ Lives don’t matter/ Wolves getting ready/ They’re gonna buy more guns.” But these are easily glazed over in favor of the more wondrous whole, which offers up a more evocative portrait of the current state of the world than those lyrics would suggest.

John Cale has proven himself, time and time again. MERCY is quite the late-career statement, an album that’s patient and inquisitive and always searching. And it seems to have opened up a new lane for Cale to explore from here on out. “This album took two and a half years to put together and it became a bit of a workshop for me,” he said in a recent interview. “Once I finished it, it didn’t stop, and so by the time I got all the work for this album done I was into another album.” Cale has already moved on to what’s next: “I don’t really look back. I sit down at the keyboard or the computer and let go.”

MERCY is out 1/20 via Double Six/Domino.

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Other albums of note out this week:
• Mac DeMarco’s Five Easy Hot Dogs
• Guided By Voices’ LA LA LAND
• Dave Rowntree’s Radio Songs
• Ryuichi Sakamoto’s 12
• The C.I.A.’s Surgery Channel
• Oddisee’s To What End
• The Bad Ends’ The Power And The Glory
• Palette Knife’s New Game+
• Fran’s Leaving
• SLUG’s Thy Socialite
• Låpsley’s Cautionary Tales Of Youth
• We Are Scientists’ Lobes
• Ladytron’s Time’s Arrow
• J.T. IV’s The Future
• Katatonia’s Sky Void Of Stars
• Tribunal’s The Weight Of Remembrance
• Skull Practitioners’ Negative Stars
• Måneksin’s Rush!
• New Found Glory’s Make The Most Of It
• Paul Carrack’s Don’t Wait Too Long
• GOT the beat’s Stamp On It
• Kali Malone’s Does Spring Hide Its Joy
• Joe Henry’s All The Eye Can See
• Beauty Pill’s Blue Period anthology
• Ziggy Katz & Emile Mosseri’s When You Finish Saving The World original soundtrack
• Braniac’s The Predator Nominate EP
• The Moss’ Insomnia EP

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