Cale Still in Command
When an artist stretches a respectably steady career over six decades, they are usually afforded a certain amount of slack when they trot out new material. Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood serves as both the rule and the exception. John Cale is one of the most unique artists still going, and yet in all honesty, he seems to have no use for our well-meaning slack. “I Wannna Talk 2 You,” the grooving opener is a perfect example of just how Cale goes about his business. The alphanumeric title comes off cheeky and winking—on-point in introducing a strutting yarn of seduction. Clearly, he’s not taking himself too seriously, but at the same time, he doesn’t let the jaunt in his step threaten the sobriety of his vision.
Of particular interest with this record is how much it shows Cale in complete control of his art. His voice stays as a steady and confident center, allowing for the music to intertwine modern sound technology with the old-fashion mechanics of solid songwriting and arrangement. Maybe 2011’s Extra Playful EP was an omen of things to come, as Cale makes nuanced and tasteful use of effects. Perhaps most infamously here is auto-tune, which he uses to color swirling compositions like “Face to the Sky” and “December Rains”—and though remarking on a tasteful example of auto-tune might sound like an exercise in oxymoronics, what its use here boils down to is just another pigment on the master’s palette.
Though the songs run a nice gamut between moods of introspection and calculated cool, it is clear Cale is enjoying his work. There is no sense of either the jaded artist struggling to maintain relevance, or the career musician who qualifies “things recorded” and “things to be released” as one in the same, with little regard for quality. For example, the hammy “Nookie Wood” might come off a little strange to those who know Cale solely as a celebrated songwriter, but the song is a piece of well-crafted electronic clatter nonetheless consistent not only with Cale’s strong songwriting base, but an undergirding quirky aesthetic. From track to track, all sides of Cale’s personality are in full flower.
Of course neither playful experimentation nor solid, straight-forward songwriting are anything new to Cale, who lest we forget was just as responsible for the avant-garde tendencies of The Velvet Underground as he was crafting the magical suites of Paris 1919. In this way, the tremendous range and excellence of his previous work almost—almost!—diminishes the power of Nookie Wood’s compositions. In all honesty, nothing will eclipse the best of his material, but at the same time, his latest bares no need to compete. This solid set of songs serves to enhance Cale’s reputation as the steady and perpetually interesting artist that he is, while still obliging him the trust to dabble in immunity as an elder statesmen.