Mercy

Jan 23, 2023
Web Exclusive

By Michael James Hall


Forever pushing the boundaries of pop, punk, and experimental music, John Cale has been a constant presence at the frayed edges of rock ‘n’ roll for the past six decades. The Welsh maverick co-founded The Velvet Underground in 1964 and then went on to collaborate with artists as diverse as Brian Eno, Squeeze, Happy Mondays, Marc Almond, and LCD Soundsystem. He’s had a wildly varied solo career encompassing singer/songwriter classics (Paris 1919, 1973), cocaine-fueled paranoia trips (Fear, 1974), commercial rock (Honi Soit, 1981), and witty, almost lighthearted late-career gems (Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood, 2012).

Now an octogenarian, Cale presents Mercy, a collaborative collage of brooding, bold electronica, traversing lysergic landscapes with raven humor and a stoic eye focused firmly on catastrophe. It’s an album of disparity and contradiction. Cale undercuts the shimmying pop of “I Know You’re Happy,” featuring the sweet, soaring voice of Tei Shi, with the refrain “I know you’re happy, when I’m sad” and offers the contrary couplet, “Thinking those days will be coming back/Thinking those days are gone,” in the vortex of the Animal Collective-backed “Everlasting Days.”

“Moonstruck (Nico’s Song),” a slow, stabbing tribute to the late singer advises, “Don’t be afraid of this life/Be afraid of this life,” while the title track most brutally underscores this oscillation: “Lives do matter/Lives don’t matter,” delivered in Cale’s breathy croon over Laurel Halo’s synths and distant hum of voice, a counterpoint to Cale’s apparent despair.

Alongside Actress, Cale triumphs with the semi-improvized “Marilyn Monroe’s Legs (Beauty Elsewhere),” a finely woven shroud of a song, shifting spectrally between dismaying heart monitor pulse and slivers of layered sound.

Working with Weyes Blood, Cale conjures “Story of Blood,” blending sunset sounds with an uneasy lyric (“You see it coming/The thickness and the color/Sliding across the floor”) which takes a cautiously uplifting turn (“I’m going back to get them, my friends in the morning/Bring them back into the light”), Weyes Blood’s backing vocals massaging the purposefully painful lament into something more palatable.

Veiled in mystery, “Not the End of the World” is a fever dream of a desert journey, while Bowie tribute “Night Crawling” is challenging, obtuse, and suspicious—“I can’t even tell when you’re putting me on/We’ve played that game before.” It’s detailed, deeply textured material and demands granular attention.

A sad standout here is “Time Stands Still” with Sylvan Esso—“The Grandeur that was Europe/Is sinking in the mud” and “Did you realize how late it was?/Later than you think” being key lines, Cale decrying the trivia of pop music (“I don’t want to hear about heartache or dancing in the snow”) but still insisting on offering moments of evocative grace (“Christmas in the wilderness, springtime in Japan”). These songs shift in tone, in arrangement, in sound, unpredictably and sometimes frustratingly, never allowing the listener to settle even as the album’s glacial pace lulls them.

Closer “Out Your Window” sees Cale duet with Dustin Boyer’s screaming guitar, a darkly comic epic with Cale at first desperate (“I saw a silhouette up on the roof/And I ran to climb the stairwell up to you”) but ultimately conciliatory (“If you’re wanting to go, take me with you”).

It’s a devious, pointedly confounding album that’s as tough as it is tender, as brilliant as it is sometimes bad (“The Legal Status of Ice,” take a bow). It’s a work of invention, ideas, and intelligence that’s often deeply disturbing and always meticulously avant-garde. There are no simple solutions on offer to the personal and political issues depicted here, only taut, poetical observations, Cale exchanging clarity for impression and tunefulness for gothic drama. It’s not merely hostile to comprehension, it absolutely delights in its misleading mischief

In Cale’s eightieth year, Mercy reiterates his ever-evolving dedication to high strangeness and musical exploration, and while it never even approaches being an easy listen, it is certainly a compelling, rewarding ride. (www.john-cale.com)

Author rating: 7.5/10

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