John Cale opened last year’s Extra Playful EP by exhorting his listeners to “Say hello to the future and goodbye to the past.” Here’s a near-septuagenarian with an abiding appreciation for mainstream contemporary rap, a vehement disregard for the conventional readings of pop history, and an occasional contempt for the autonomy of his collaborators. We continue to listen for this malcontentedness (increasingly genial with age) and warped, sardonic sense of humor. And as a cultural institution, we forgive him the occasional trespass, as we do Macca, Dylan, and Leonard Cohen (there are some rules of propriety). Foregrounded acclaim and status can compromise our efforts to listen, understand, challenge, and contextualize, even to just react to new work.
Whether it’s his storied tenure in The Velvet Underground or the stately whole of Paris 1919 on down the line: yes. Cale is an iconoclast that has produced moments of great, aching artistic merit. But Cale has always been an artist that inspires enduring questions over easy respect, and occasionally defies explanation. How else to characterize, say, hearing the title track of Fear for the first time? Wonder, discomfort, confoundedness: and so lifelong John Cale fans are born. In interviews and in his work, Cale seems one to laugh off past success and the strictures of received opinion, instead minding the “endless horizons, for years to come.” He’s candid about the hunger and dissatisfaction of creative life: “I have ambitions… to achieve all my potential. And I’m not sure I have.” And this is one of the reasons that Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood falls so flat. Cale seems content to pen selfsame songs in environments that neither play to his strengths as a performer nor break new ground. You can’t blame him for failing to keep abreast of the accelerating pace of recording technology, but there’s very little touch or keen detail that surface in these mixes.
The chorus of “Scotland Yard” — perhaps the most cogent song on Cale’s first LP of new material since 2007’s resilient Black Acetate — features a studio choice familiar to longtime fans. Reminding the body politic suffering the tenebrous whim of the modern surveillance state that ”You knew it could happen/ You knew that it would,” Cale’s steely baritone holds the end of one line as another vocal take begins the next. The lines soar above the tarmac-thick post-industrial lurch of the track with an authority — an authority that resonates only with some threat of violence. You could argue that Cale almost seems to enjoy delivering the chiding confirmation of total technological encroachment. Is this narrator immunized to his message or a party to it? As listeners might have asked themselves through a long and adventurous career: what’s the quality of the distance between the song and its characters and the madman delivering it? This tension only otherwise surfaces in the conflict between quotidian domestic boredom and peaceful contentment in “Living With You.”
Cale’s strongest work tends to enjoy such a psychic split: sometimes a seething, sneering intellect tearing at the corners of pop convention, in others the viscera of emotional degradation. But always a command, resolute, bordering on dictatorial, very often cut with a uniquely caustic sense of humor and play. Nookie Wood sees Cale losing that command in presumed studio isolation, sampling now-dated production effects and parameters. Better than half of Nookie Wood revels in Auto-Tune and Antares-style vocal manipulation without performative consideration to their popular use, context, or lack of plasticity. One’s enjoyment of this album largely depends on embracing these manipulations of Cale’s enduringly strong voice. His fans, however, should expect a more thorough interrogation of these tools. The middle strait of the album is simply John Cale songs, now with Auto-Tune. (I suppose I might mention the potential interest of an aging artist self-reflexively using Auto-Tune and pitch-correction to countermand the natural waning of volume, vigor, and affect. Or, perhaps, the opportunity to satirize/inhabit/mug the sounds of today’s Top 40 and really chance failure and beggar belief.)
And while Nookie Wood suggests lusty concupiscence, naughtiness, and vim, these conjurations are foundered by big production and mastering straight out of 90s alt-pop radio. The overall sound is somehow both voluminous and canned. When Cale tries to fight through it, as on “Hemmingway’s” piano thumping, it’s, well, short of shocking. At a time when even casual pop listeners are inured to some really out-there sonics, the anachronistic fretless bass on “Face to the Sky” makes more of an impression than the song’s stuttering distorted guitar. “Vampire Café’s” skittering shuffle is a shadow of 90s trip-hop paranoia, and even the looped viola on “Sandman” feels like a pale rehash of “Venus in Furs.” I would welcome a strong open-hand slap from Mr. Cale (preferably in the form of an album) in lieu of this strange, bizarrely safe long-player. An acknowledgement of an urgency that precludes mere song-to-song topicality — an embrace of the spaces of Hobosapiens and Fragments of a Rainy Season, perhaps — would trump these daydreams of shifty adventures to come.