hough I'm certain it pains him to admit as much, it's all but impossible to think of John Cale for very long without his Velvet Underground foil/nemesis, the irrepressible Lou Reed, coming to mind. For all the two headstrong artists have done on their own in the intervening three and a half decades, both are inextricably linked to their brilliant-albeit brief-collaboration in the seminal VU - their every release and comment in the press inevitably seen as another strategic move in the chess match that has become their chilly relationship. While unfair to both, Cale can take heart; Sweet Lou's Evil Empire has hit rock bottom of late, what with his hideous Poe concept album and a decade's worth of songs about old-people sex with Laurie Anderson (all delivered in his tiresomely one-dimensional "authentic" rock settings). As if to prove the error of his old counterpart's ways, the viola-sawing Welsh minimalist in Cale has been busy in recent years, producing several scores for ballet and film, in addition to writing an excellent autobiography, What's Welsh For Zen, and learning Pro-Tools studio technology. And now, he's just made one of his very best records in any genre at the ripe old age of 61.
A remarkable feat in and of itself, it should be stated from the outset that the new Hobo Sapiens is hardly Cale's autumnal valediction - his Time Out of Mind, as it were, where we're forced to rationalize its faults to the point of arguing that they're virtues. And despite a production that betrays more than a passing familiarity with electronica and the presence of Lemon Jelly's Nick Franglen, nor is this his Vespertine.
Rather, Cale's first pop release proper since 1996's Walking On Locusts (barring the Five Tracks EP from earlier this year) finds the Welshman sounding decidedly like himself - but as confidently of the moment as men half his age. Where others at this point in their careers find themselves trapped by decades of expectations, Cale's strength has never been the vitality of youth, but rather a preternatural maturity. And here, pissed off by a worsening political climate (most notably in "Letter From Abroad," written before 9/11 about the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan) and once again in need of sating his ever-restless artistic spirit, that maturity's been invigorated and liberated.
As always, that gruff, ageless voice is central to the equation, delivering those Brill Building-esque melodies in Cale's inimitable style, whether they're set straight (the driving power pop of "Things") or charged by a dark dissonance (the song's Photostat negative, "Things X"). Critical, too, are the Great Artists, Important Figures and literary references that have been strewn throughout his catalog (in a sign of Cale's aesthetic egalitarianism, Archimedes, Waiting For Godot and Charlie Brown are all name-checked), lending an air of culture to the proceedings. And for good measure, there's the viola sawing its way in and out of the mix, to the John Cale oeuvre what Glen Campbell's signature guitar twang was to his late-sixties work with Jimmy Webb and producer Al DeLory.
By my count, Cale's written three or four songs here-the aforementioned "Things" among them-that rank up there with his very best. And with about half the album dedicated to the type of deconstructionist/subtractive approach Cale debuted on his 1982 masterpiece, Music for a New Society, there might be others that reveal themselves with successive listens. There's spacey opener "Zen" and the slightly prog "Look Horizon," where Cale sets moody narratives over bass ostinati, drum loops and atmospheric electronics. Equally intriguing is the mysterious "Caravan," where Cale pits the sonorous harmonies of his beloved Beach Boys against the drone of Talking Heads' "The Overload" (itself, a rip on Cale's mid-70's work). All once again show Cale's singular gift for bringing out the underlying tension in even the most bucolic settings - the central preoccupation of his work from 1970's Vintage Violence onward
There's more, of course: the insidious guitar pop of "Reading My Mind," the chipper dance instrumental "Bicycle" and aggro-pop of "Twilight Zone". But the album's highlight is surely "Magritte," typically for Cale, less about its subject than a comment on his own damaged psyche. As rich as an entry in his catalog as any, the song creates a palpable sense of unease with ruminating marcato strings, creeping ensemble vocals and noir art heist mystery (possibly, but not explicitly, inspired by The Thomas Crown Affair). And to top it all off, there is his inimitable humor ("Upstairs there's a canvas stretched/For umbrellas and bowler hats/Everybody knows Rene did that") with which Cale puts his unique imprint on "Magritte". I ask you: who else has this command of craft, melody, wit and experimentalism in 2003? Who in this day and age has this breadth of culture and experience to draw from?
There seem to be enough ideas, stories, counter-melodies and references here for three albums worth of material - if for that reason alone, Hobo Sapiens ought to be one of the avant-pop templates for years to come. The kids can learn from this - the rest of us can just consider ourselves lucky the man's still around.
Reviewed by: Matthew Weiner
Reviewed on: 2003-12-17