John Cale, the legendary musician who played with Lou Reed in The Velvet Underground and produced some of the most pivotal records in American music history like Nico, Patti Smith, and The Stooges, as well as a creator of some enduring records of his own, has always been on the periphery of greatness in the public eye. It is those shadows that seem to inform his subject matter and production choices on his records, especially his latest record, Mercy.
With such heavy hitters as Weyes Blood, Animal Collective, and Sylvan Esso, you would imagine that this record would shimmer and shine, like those artists that he brings to the table. Always melodically adventurous and lyrically astute on this album of songs, Cale yet chooses to play down his super powers into what sounds like an unknown musician in his basement with keyboards and drum machines, and little else.
While I was listening, enamored by the magnanimous heart behind the record, I was imagining what David Bowie (who he shares not a little in common with in song writing) would do to push this album to the ether. What it might sound like, if he had, say, a backing band like The Flaming Lips on the album, something he most certainly has the pull to accomplish.
But as the potent emotionalism, and finger-on-the-pulse poetry of his very first lyrics on this album, “Lives do matter / lives don’t matter / Wolves getting ready,” illustrate, Cale is playing a different game than most pop-friendly musicians out there. “It was ugly, It was ugly / There was always beauty elsewhere,” he laments on the second track of the album, which features the artist Actress.
The album is shot through with the pain and euphoria of human existence, one track digging into the primal and transcendent properties of blood in each and every one of our circulatory systems. “This is the story, the story of blood / It starts in the heart / It moves all around, wakes you in the morning / And brings you down.” The appropriate feature choice, Weyes Blood, is barely audible on the track, her angelic voice almost non-existent in the compelling tale, but there nonetheless.
It wasn’t until the last track, “Out Your Window,” that it all made sense to me. It is a song, it seems, about a suicide jumper. “Don’t you be jumping out, don’t you be jumping out, your window.” “If you’re wanting to go, take me with you / Please, please come home.” The power of music to save lives, Cale illustrates on this lo-fi record, is not in the power of its polish or the impressiveness of pop composition, but a heart, like his, that simply has mercy. This record might not touch a lot of people, but who it touches, it will touch very deeply, I think. And that’s the line that Cale seems to be called and willing to walk. Making music, not for the entertainment hungry masses, but those who have ears to hear his heartfelt tale.
Pre-order Mercy by John Cale HERE
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