Review: John Cale Creates Another Masterpiece

John Cale/Mercy/Double Six Records
Four Out of Five Stars

Videos by American Songwriter

It’s been nearly 60 years since John Cale and Lou Reed co-founded the Velvet Underground, a band that upended rock and dared defy the norms and attitudes that defined the late ‘60s. Cale’s released a string of equally astute recordings on his own ever since, veering into the realms of punk, classical, jazz, ambient, and other assorted styles ever since, but lately his recording activity has become increasingly rare. 

Mercy marks his first outing since M:FANS  some seven years ago, but nevertheless, even at the wizened age of 81, he’s no less daring than before. Marked by a series of ominous atmospheric soundscapes, the album finds Cale seemingly beckoning whatever spirits surround him with a dire yet distinctive vocal that casts a spell on the effort overall. The title track pleads for the mercy it calls for, but given the plodding rhythms (notably, Cale plays drums along with many of the other instrumental staples) and the heavily synthesized ambiance, the tone is as meditative as it is moving. An ode to America’s legendary beauty queen, “Marilyn Monroe’s Legs (Beauty Elsewhere)” doesn’t necessarily connect to its subject (Seven times seven and forty-nine, The cube of nine and seven three…), but like the rest of the set, the sound flows like some sort of hypnotic incantation throughout. On a song such as “Story of Blood” (You see it coming/The thickness and the color/Sliding across the floor…), the dark and eerily unnerving “Night Crawling”  and the busy, rhythm-heavy “Everlasting Days,” the actual meanings seem somewhat elusive at best, but there’s little doubt that Cale is convinced there are thoughts that need to be shared, however ambiguous they sometimes seem. 

That said, there are tracks that connect in other ways. “Time Stands Still” glistens with a certain spectral beauty, while “Moonstruck (Nico’s Song)” offers a homage to the Velvets’ late chanteuse and shimmers with a sound that reflects Cale’s obvious affection.

Animal Collective, Sylvan Esso, and other outsiders contribute their efforts as well, but this is clearly Cale’s concept entirely. Those familiar with his earlier work, be it his remarkable experimental works such as Church of Anthrax with Terry Riley, the stately Paris 1919, or the more aggressive efforts such as Vintage Violence, Fear, or Slow Dazzle, ought to know what to expect from this remarkable musician. Nevertheless, after time away and even at such a venerable age, Cale continues to make daring seem so daunting.

Photo by Marlene Marino /Pitch Perfect PR

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