Album Reviews

John Cale – POPtical Illusion

(Domino) UK release date: 14 June 2024

As consistent and cohesive as anything he’s made, it’s also a fantastic introduction to his solo music for people who haven’t yet taken the plunge

John Cale - POPtical Illusion The career John Cale‘s had to date doesn’t really bear repeating here – but a few highlights wouldn’t go amiss. In 1967, he was part of the band – The Velvet Underground – that made the greatest album of all time. In 1968, his band evolved and made an album that practically invented the tools that punks, post-punks, noise rockers and experimentalists are still using to this day – there are still echoes of Cale’s The Gift running through modern luminaries like Dry Cleaning and Drahla. Between 1969 and 1976, he produced The Stooges, Patti Smith, Nico, The Modern Lovers and Nick Drake – while making at least five classic albums of his own (depending on who you ask). 

In 2023 he released Mercy – a relentlessly modern, highly collaborative take on the kind of art rock he helped pioneer. This year, he’s releasing the (unfortunately titled) POPtical Illusion, which strips his music back to fundamentals and takes a risk by doing away with the collaborative approach that brought him so much success last time around. Produced by Cale and longtime artistic partner Nita Scott in his Los Angeles studio, POPtical Illusion represents Cale’s often stark opinion on modern life, with many of these views being generated during the pandemic. 

Other than the fact that it’s so bloody good, the most surprising thing about POPtical Illusion is how timeless it sounds – almost uncannily so. Davies and Wales, the second song, is the best way to understand the juxtaposition between the known (that we’re in 2024) and the felt (that this can’t possibly be from now). It manages to sound like the early ’70s, late ’80s, mid ’90s all at once – a trend that carries across almost every track on the album. Whether that works for you or not is a different story, but it’s nothing if not consistent(ly disorientating). 

The best track on the album – Shark-Shark – is just lovely. Built around a robotic Joy Division rhythm and adorned by some crashing, distorted waves of noise, it’s a euphoric throwback to the Cale of old. It’s immediately followed by a track that best represents the Cale of now – Funkball The Brewster. With a sibilant, hissing rhythm and gossamer-fine instrumentation, it’s almost transparent in its lightness. Company Commander is dark, and hard-edged – another of the album’s highlights. The blasted-out trap stylings of Edge Of Reason are entertaining, and in their own way reminiscent of how another legendary rocker (Kim Gordon) has been experimenting with similar sounds, but in a much, much darker way: Cale uses trap and hip-hop for largely positive purposes. 

This is a superb album, and a slightly better one than Mercy, which says a lot, but whether it joins the pantheon of Cale’s most legendary records remains to be seen. One would certainly hope so. While it’s not as immediate and as thrilling as White Light/White Heat (very few albums are), as unnerving and dark as Fear or Slow Dazzle, nor as playful or texturally engaging as Vintage Violence, or as fun as Shifty Adventures in Nooky Wood, it’s as consistent and cohesive as any of them. It’s also a fantastic introduction to John Cale’s solo music for people who haven’t yet taken the plunge. Another one next year, John?

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