As John Cale releases his new album, Mercy, Gary Raymond wonders whether the album would have benefited from some straight shooting.
It’s strange to listen to a new album nowadays awash with sounds and vibes that place it firmly in the noble House of Nostalgia – that movement that has taken the best of yesteryear and done something fresh with it – and find that new album… well… dated. John Cale’s new record, the exceptionally ponderous (and at times glacial) Mercy, lays the samplers and synths of 90s home recording heavily across some painfully gradual chord progressions, and instead of exploding the expectations of it seems to have captured some of the slightest and thinnest of that decade’s innovations. The album has its moments – and my goodness it gives itself enough time and space to have them – but its low points are echoes of a past nobody is yearning for.
It doesn’t need saying that Cale is perhaps the most important musical figure to ever come out of Wales. His influence on alternative music cannot be overestimated. He came to rock music and its pop sensibilities from the extreme avant garde in the 1960s, forming The Velvet Underground with Lou Reed after living in a commune with band mates including La Monte Young from his previous band The Dream Syndicate where they would wake every morning and jam a two-hour drone before, presumably, having some breakfast and going for a run. Cale was the most innovative member of the 1960s most out-there rock n roll band. He has never rescinded from the role of grand grave wizard of the highest form of what became known as “art rock”. And nobody can begrudge him now, at 80-years of age, as he continues to seek to push the envelope. But too often on Mercy does it feel like this hulking great record is doing things it doesn’t need to be doing. Two chord tricks, as on the title track and “Moonstruck (Nico’s Song)”, are smattered like a Pollock painting with sonic beads and scrawls. It is telling just how uninteresting all this makes the songs.
It may matter that the effects all sound dated. Maybe they wouldn’t work anyway. The “noodling”, as Brian Eno used to call it, is distracting. The album could have done with more straight shooting. Weyes Blood (Natalie Mering), who can at the moment do no wrong as far as I’m concerned (and has on her last two albums done things with the Laura Nyro-vibe that even Laura Nyro couldn’t have dreamt up), is utterly wasted on her guest track, left to linger in the peripheries of a song that doesn’t suit her. You have to wonder also what Animal Collective are bringing to the party on the clumsy “Everlasting Days”.
There are snappy moments. “Night Crawling” is a good song, “I Know You’re Happy” is positively jaunty (and Tei Shi gives out some genuine light in all the gloom), and opener “Mercy” builds to something quite propulsive by the end of its seven minutes. But most songs go on too long and without much purpose. “Not the End of the World” gives us a stunning vocal performance from Cale and, tellingly, it is musically the tightest song on the album, no mean feat seeing as it still comes in at over six minutes. Mercy is a bloated album of songs that, for all their forced textures, offer something of a largely airless experience. Cale has called it an album of “dark-night-of-the-soul electronics”. It’s no news to anyone that Cale is a man who takes himself very seriously, but I’m no longer convinced we must sit through 70-odd minutes to reach an enlightened state that, in the case of Mercy at least, never comes.
Mercy is available now via Double Six/Domino.