When one thinks of John Cale, one thinks of the avant-garde drone-rock of The Velvet Underground, and perhaps chopping up a chicken on stage (after this 1977 event, his drummer at the time, a vegetarian, promptly quit).
It is therefore easy to forget that he actually hails from the throbbing hotbed of Bohemia that isn’t Garnant, a settlement in the industrial heart of Wales. However, this particular boyo has come so far from his remote upbringings as to be a symbol for all that is gloomy and sinister in popular music.
Black Acetate, the follow up to 2003’s Hobosapiens, on the first glance at the grey face staring at you on the cover and on first listen to the macabre first few tracks, perpetuates the reputation of Cale as this dark sort of character. Yet, overall, it’s not a depressing, unhappy or desperate album. It disturbs the listener rather than deflates them, with its unhinged energy and unrelenting sonic oddities.
If you picture a clown with smudged make-up and laughing maniacally with a Jack Torrance glint in his eye, you have arrived at the mood of much of this album. Brotherman is a particularly harrowing three minutes – if a migraine could be translated into song it would sound something like this. And there are others like it, combining similar vocal deficiencies to Leonard Cohen with electronic noises that hark back to Bowie in his Berlin period.
So it seems that Black Acetate has settled on a theme of nihilistic minimalism and is content to brood. But then Cale moves into a different zone. Gravel Drive, the standout track of the album, is a beautiful, haunting number with Cale confiding an unfamiliar vulnerability over a single guitar refrain, complemented marvellously by ethereal female vocals. Gentle and reflective, this mid-album song acts as a pivot for the sultry electronica that preceded it and the more raucous noise that follows.
Cale completes his collage of an LP with some punk-rock (yet still the lyrical content addresses insecurity and desolation, especially the superb Wasteland – back to deepest Wales perhaps) and the excellent single, Turn The Lights On.
The most provocative line on Black Acetate comes in Brotherman, when Cale states “I write reams of this shit everyday/ And you’re still feeling it!”. Now it is of course unclear whom he is addressing here – record companies, the press, or even his beloved audience. But whoever it is, surely this demeaning of his own work devalues the rest of what is actually a pretty fine album. How can something as fragile as Gravel Drive be some ‘shit’ he made up? If he is mocking such material and suggesting it is insincere, it is a very cruel trick but one Cale, scourge of all chickens, is more than capable of playing.
But it isn’t a trick and another listen to this album reveals the true nature of John Cale. He deals in balances, equilibriums, ying-yang, duality and so forth. Black Acetate is in equal measures, serious and mocking, threatening and comforting, ambient and rowdy. A bleak first half gives way to reflecting and relatively speaking, delicacy in the second. Perhaps this observation can be tentatively applied to Cale’s career in general. He famously produced the riotous eponymous debut by The Stooges in 1969, and also went on to play on Nick Drake‘s gentle Bryter Layter the following year. It seems Cale may always have gone out of his way to cover both ends of the spectrum.
John Cale the great moderate, anyone?