I’ve never been much of a fan of the use of electronics in popular music. Far too often they seem to be used to either cover up somebody’s shortcomings as a musician or to replace live musicians with a machine. The thing is, I’ve yet to hear a machine which can duplicate the emotional nuance a human can bring to the playing of any instrument. Sure a drum machine can keep the beat, but that’s all it can do. I don’t know about anybody else, but I can hear a good drummer’s heart in his or her playing even when they’re just marking time. However, what’s even worse, is the employing of electronics as shortcuts in this manner shows a singular lack of imagination in the failure to realize its potential as an instrument and a tool for creativity. Most pop music barely scratches the surface when it comes to the possibilities technology represents.
This becomes glaringly obvious when you have the opportunity to hear how someone like John Cale puts them to use. His newest release, Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood, now available on Double Six Records as either a single CD or double vinyl LP, should be required listening for anybody considering using electronics of any sort in a recording. For not only does Cale not use them for shortcuts, his use of tape loops, synthesizers and a variety of other electronic elements is imaginative and exciting. Maybe it’s the fact he was trained as a classical musician which gave him a grounding in composition which makes him more inventive. Of course, it could also be the same spirit of experimentation that caused his teachers at London’s Goldsmith’s College to honour him with the “Most Hateful Student” award in the early 1960s that makes what he does so interesting. For as this album makes obvious, he’s not one for shying away from taking risks.
However, I think it’s probably a combination of the two. Just as really good abstract painters have to learn the basics of figure drawing and perspective before they can experiment with form and colour, modern composers need to understand traditional composition and musical notation in order to reject them. Cale has a wealth of experience working both in popular and experimental music either as a solo artist or as the member of a group starting from his days in The Velvet Underground and his associations with Andy Warhol’s Factory. While he has never strived for recognition, the world is finally beginning to appreciate his talents, as he was chosen to represent Wales at the 2009 Venice Biennale art competition and festival and was awarded an OBE (Officer of the British Empire – a step down from a knighthood – in 2010.
Based on that history you’d expect some sort of very serious experimental piece which most would find inaccessible and breathtakingly boring. Well, Cale has been trashing people’s expectations for decades and this disc is no exception. According to the press release issued with this disc the 12 tracks began life as rhythms and grooves and he built songs out of what they suggested to him. For example, the bass line for the song “Vampire Cafe” reminded him of vintage vampire movies. The combination of viola, still Cale’s instrument of choice after all these years, accordion and drums is not a mix of instruments you’re going to find on many albums, be they pop or classical. However as they are employed here they manage to capture both the darkness we associate with vampires and something of the emptiness at the core of the undead creatures’ souls. There’s also something about the accordion and viola mixture which gives the song a decidedly Eastern European feel, the part of the world we most associate with vampires.
The fact that Cale has distorted his voice heavily with fuzz, making the lyrics hard to discern, only adds to the eerie atmosphere created by the instruments. In some ways the vocals are more important for adding another layer of texture to the piece rather than for what they might be saying. The desolate and isolated feelings created by the music are enhanced as his vocals feel like they have travelled a great distance to reach us. It’s as if we’re hearing a message transmitted by short-wave radio from somebody, or a group of people travelling through mountains, or a snow storm, who may or may not survive the journey.
With “Vampire Cafe” Cale creates mood and atmosphere with effects and the sounds of the instruments used in the piece. While that might not be what most of us are used to when it comes to popular music, it is still a fairly accessible and traditionally arranged song. However, earlier on in the disc, he shows us something completely different with “Hemmingway”. Created with the famous author in mind, the song seems to deal with the anguish of a creative mind which has run out of new ideas. There has always been speculation around the reasons for Hemmingway’s suicide. Cale’s song, both lyrically and musically, suggests it was the fact he had run out of things to write about that pushed him over the edge. Lyrics include: “I always held on to the thought/That if they loved you long enough/They’d find out what was missing when they finally called your bluff.”
Reading those lyrics I can only think of my own fears of being a fraud. We all have doubts as to our abilities at times, and when we’re going through a dry patch, they grow even stronger. Not only does Cale capture those feelings with the opening lines to this song, but musically it also captures how these insecurities can eat away at a person until they push them over the edge. The song starts out with a regular beat and melody line and gradually descends into the chaos of madness. Discordance seeps into the piano playing and the vocals until Cale is pounding the keyboard and turning the occasional word into a primal scream. It’s a stunning depiction of how the gift of creativity can be a two-sided blade. When the well of inspiration dries up, the creative mind turns upon itself. Imagination turns insecurities and doubts into pits of despair from which there is no escape.
Cale’s real gift as an musician is he can not only recreate something like this type of emotional journey, he does so in a way so the listener understands what’s happening to the person in question. This isn’t just some exercise in voyeurism where we are treated to the sight of a person’s descent into madness. We hear and feel their pain and travel with them as they come to the realization suicide is their only means of escaping the anguish they feel. It’s not pleasant, but it’s a brilliant piece of music.
Not all the songs on this disc are quite so intense or moody as the two I’ve mentioned, but they are all equally well conceived and executed. He utilizes technology as if it were another instrument to be played. In much the same way that guitarist Dustin Boyer and drummer Michael Jerome Moore make their contributions to each song, drum machines, tape loops and other electronically generated sounds become part of the overall sound. The video for the album’s title song, “Nookie Wood”, that I’ve embedded here is a sample of the amazing work Cale has created. It might not be what most are used to, but it’s what we should hope more and more are inspired to emulate. This a great album of music by one of the most inventive composers of our time.
Photo Credit: Picture of John Cale by Shawn Brackbill