John Cale has worked with more illustrious artists than I’ve had hot dinners. Since the ’60s when he and Lou Reed started the project that was to become Velvet Underground he has been involved in some of the most influential people and records of the succeeding decades – Nico, The Stooges, Nick Drake, Patti Smith, Super Furry Animals and the Manics to name but a few.
His solo career has been less visible and certainly at times less accessible. The new album Hobo Sapiens – taking its title from an unpublished article Cale wrote about Bob Dylan – is a fascinating collection of tracks from an old pro, whose classical training and avant-garde leanings add colour to simply constructed songs.
The album opens with Zen, a windswept, bleak but lovely soundscape, which turns into a hypnotic trance-like (in the old sense of the word) mantra. For a complete change, Reading My Mind is a jaunty little, almost-pop number in which Cale (“just driving the motor – she was reading my mind”) manages to crash the car in Italy, with appropriate Italian commentary running in the background. This gets my prize for the best use of foreign language since The Divine Comedy‘s When The Lights Go Out All Over Europe…
In essence, these two tracks sum up the album: some serious music, and some seriously good fun, though you need to like your humour black. Look Horizon is one of the standout tracks in the former category – shades of Dylan in the voice, beautiful violin floating over hectic drums, a dissonant organ creating unease in the background, and then breaking into a heavy guitar refrain.
Magritte tries to do more of the same but doesn’t really do much other than sound rather pretentious; Caravan on the other hand is a serene, brooding track with sitar adding Eastern flavour.
Archimedes and Bicycle are very much in the humour camp: fun, light-hearted tracks, the second an instrumental featuring all sorts of goodies including giggles and of course, bicycle bells – an old cliché but it still works.
Cale saves the best of all till last. “She sees flames in the kitchen / It’s a vision of hell / And a sign that Madam is not feeling well” is the opening line of Over Her Head, and it just gets better and better, with lush piano and orchestration taking it into fabulous OTT melodrama territory, before it finally lets go and really rocks. Magnificent.