Collaborators including Actress, Fat White Family and Weyes Blood show up for a roster that stretches from eloquent electronica via sleazy indie to dilated-pupil neo-psychedelia
The story of 21st-century hip-hop is the story of collaboration. Contemporary fans exploring Paid In Full, the classic 1987 album by Eric B & Rakim, might be surprised to find that the full list of artists involved is a) Eric B; b) Rakim. Today the equivalent would feature beats from a pool of producers and guest vocals from a coachload of rappers and singers, regardless of the names on the front cover.
On the plus side, this reduces the chances of stagnation and keeps artists creative, but it does make for albums without much of a tonal centre. Whilst the glossiest of pop productions might involve a vast phalanx of producers each ensuring that a specific snare sound is maximised for airplay impact on the preferred aural demographic – or something – the serial-collaborator model is less common in other music genres (although jazz and improv are, and always will be, one giant pulsating swingers’ party of temporary hook-ups).
In his first album of new compositions for a decade, John Cale has released his inner Cardi B and invited an eclectic mix of collaborators to join him on seven of the 12 tracks. However, even though this roster stretches from eloquent electronica to sleazy indie to dilated-pupil neo-psychedelia, Mercy is surprisingly cohesive as an album. Partly this is because it is victim of particularly grim modern mixing and mastering where every musical element seems to be in the foreground at once, and where reverb coats everything but without creating any sense of space (if you do hear anything behind the charmless sonic wall, it’s probably the ghost of King Tubby quietly weeping).
More pleasingly, Cale’s vocals create a rich thread through the record, dragging their wry weltschmerz through each track at a similar stately pace, regardless of changes in musical style or tempo; apart from a slightly more sprightly tune in Night Crawling, which might have come from a ’90s David Bowie track, Cale is the melodic equivalent of a noh performer, his subtly expressive mahogany tones addressing ecology, theology, or Marilyn Monroe’s legs with the same monastic delivery – it’s no surprise that he was attracted to Weyes Blood’s Natalie Mering because of her “puritanical” voice. The lyrics throughout are suitably sparse with an impressive imagistic allusiveness (though starting a song about Nico by crooning “you’re a moonstruck junky lady” is a huge misstep, coming on like some alternate-world Chris de Burgh wandering round the New York demimonde looking for stoned damsels to woo).
The collaborative pieces are generally Mercy’s most enjoyable. Fat White Family help to give The Legal Status Of Ice a woozy, punchdrunk griminess, whereas Actress brings gorgeous burbling, chattering bleeps to an improvised vocal, sounding like The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide switching itself on and off in dense undergrowth. There’s a fractured R&B feeling to Noise Of You, like it’s a sexy slow jam created by a confused old wizard, and this vibe is amplified on Story Of Blood featuring Weyes Blood, where breathy but sombre vocals pull against a sensuously slinky drum pattern, like a twisted urban impersonation of something on Prefab Sprout’s From Langley Park To Memphis. This is immediately followed by Time Sands Still with Sylvan Esso, which adds a warm dubby ’90s element to a similar beat (scholars of forgotten chillout pop might be reminded of Smoke City’s Underwater Love).
The album ends with Out Your Window, a somewhat plodding ballad with a piano motif that strongly resembles the refrain to Nobody Lives Without Love, Eddi Reader’s contribution to the Batman Forever soundtrack, of all things. The relentlessly hammered keys are wearing, and a nasal guitar is tasteless, but even here, at the album’s weakest point, we’re still surprised with the falsetto plea, “don’t you be jumping out your window”. Mercy may have a few forgettable tracks, but an artist with John Cale’s long and varied history will always find a way to intrigue the listener. But next time, John, why stop at seven guest collaborators? Break out the Rolodex and let’s really go to town.