“Say hello to the future/ And goodbye to the past/ Hurry up through the present,” John Cale joyfully sings in “Catastrofuk,” the first track from the Extra Playful EP. As commonplace as this overheard statement might be, it pretty much sums up what the Welsh violist and composer has been doing since, basically, his involvement in the John Cage-produced 18-hour rendering of Erik Satie’s Vexations back in 1963. Perhaps playing a fraction of the 840 variation-less repetitions for piano of the same harmonically-unsolvable piece without a clear purpose helped to install an aimless causality in his musical vision — where the focus of temporal reference is blurred — moving away from any proclivity to follow a tradition and, most importantly, not attempting to establish one in the process.
In the same line of thought, recent discussions — partially prompted by Simon Reynolds’ latest book — have addressed matters such as the notion of originality as a myth of modernity and the non-transcendental value of novelty in the so-called ‘retro’ or ‘revival’ styles. Precisely, Cale’s music — no matter how accessibly experimental — has never been concerned about being ‘novel’ or ‘original.’ Instead, he has managed to translate the past and future struggle into a harmonic balance between experience and expectation. As a proof, he has been heavily touring in recent months, revisiting songs from throughout his solo career (as in last year’s Seven Songs to Leave Behind Festival in Australia) or throwing a complete rendering of the chamber pop cornerstone Paris 1919 (TMT Review of the 1973 album).
Now, Extra Playful — a marked improvement over 2005’s blackAcetate and an appetizer for a full-length album due out in spring 2012 — finds Cale applying his serious compositional approaches to five traditional verse-chorus forms, with mechanized-pop production techniques and a raw sense of humor. Conceptually, this EP partially aims at the collective popular imagery from the 1960s, which had in some degree a blatant, unquestionable optimistic attitude towards the future — best exemplified through certain forms of retro-futurism (such as space-age science fiction), showing the same latent tension between past and future that leaves in between an unresolved, careless present. Cale mocks all of these issues in “Hey Ray” by pseudo-rapping in a martial rhythm within a frame of slow, friendly proto-industrial beats (“1967/ It’s the golden age/ 1968/ It’s all over…”), dismissing completely any kind of nostalgic pose on that decade, and showing distrust and cynicism against the idealist postmodern dream. Cale carries the song on with a peculiar sarcastic take on cultural geopolitics, ranging from the exaggerated cold war paranoia (“The Russians are coming!/ No, they’re not”) to patriotic self-rejection (“The British are coming!/ Not again!). The song is nothing more than a joke, but it is a funny one. But above all, the most atemporal musical element in these songs is his voice: self-assured, never hesitant, and pure authority, breaking the barriers of language (as in the trip-hoppish “Pile a L’Heure”) and technology (“Perfection”), a voice completely disjointed from the instrumental plane but at the same time severely reinforcing the music with brutal honesty.
This set of witty pop songs fits perfectly in the musical panorama of the last 15 years: there are no underground rock references, no orchestral pop sensibilities, no vacuous attempts at updating a ‘decades-old’ sound to modern audiences. Cale presents himself wandering in a deterritorialized zone, completely immersed in his own political convictions, a region where the temporal fetish is no longer an issue, ending thus in anachronism as a materialized aesthetic form and demonstrating how the applied idea of zeitgeist in late modernity is a delusive concept. John Cale is providing a tangential definition of what ‘contemporary’ could actually mean in pop music by attacking the same roots of popular culture historicism . Pile à l’heure, indeed.