sat 20/07/2024

Album: John Cale - POPtical Illusion | reviews, news & interviews

Album: John Cale - POPtical Illusion

Album: John Cale - POPtical Illusion

A further surge of energy from an old hand

Collage of diverse sounds

At 81, John Cale, an immensely prolific, wide-ranging and innovative musician, continues to take risks, making music that may not always be instantly appealing, but always true to an artist’s authentic path.  Hot on the heels of Mercy (2023), in which he collaborated with a number of off-centre cutting-edge talents, he has produced another album full of surprises and yet immediately recognisable as his own work.

He has written music and lyrics and plays most of the instruments, as well as co-producing the album with long-term collaborator Nida Scott. The guitarist Dustin Boyer contributes weird and wonderful sounds on a number of tracks, and ace-mixer Mikaelin “Blue” Bluespruce, also gives a number of tracks a rich and complex and intricate sound in which textures both fuse and yet remain distinct. This is classic John Cale, and, with a background in modern classical music, and a career that has spanned the dense rock of the Velvet Underground, punk and post-punk, he navigates a number of genres while always imposing his own signature.

There is anger here, about the world and the fault-lines that make humanity so much less than perfect, a disillusionment tainted with regret, the emotions so dear to poets of melancholy. “Shark Shark” channels aggression and violence, with guitar riffs that are both disturbing and energising. In “Setting Fires”, made all the more uncomfortable by an irregularly pulsing bass guitar, and a bunch of what the liner notes describe as “noises” from Cale himself, he reaches back to mind-bending sonorities, reminiscent of psychedelia in its heyday.

There is a recurring theme in the very poetic and often ambiguous lyrics: there is light to be found “through the rain”, and it is through being on the “Edge of Reason” (the title of one of his songs), when we “lose our minds”, that some kind of hope and salvation might be on offer. The paradox at the heart of his work is echoed in the layering of his vocal tracks, sometimes doubled and sometimes subtly misxed in as eerie yet seductive backing vocals, slightly out of step and only audible on close or second listening.

The album never feels overwrought though, although there is considerable intelligence and artistry here, not least on the wonderful and lush hit-worthy “How We See the Light” (yes, that reference to light again) or the final track “There Will Be No River”, a quiet and beautiful hymn to the resignation and philosophy that comes from entering a ninth decade, with a creative energy that could easily make a much younger artist envious indeed.

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