Graeme Thomson

Beautiful bleakness crowned with slivers of hope: John Cale’s Mercy reviewed

This is music for the 3 a.m. night sweats

Thrillingly claustrophobic: John Cale's first record of new material in more than a decade

There’s a case to be made for John Cale being the most daring ex-member of the Velvet Underground. Lou Reed redefined the transgressive possibilities of literate three-chord rock’n’roll. Cale, arguably, has travelled even further.

A Welsh miner’s son who won a scholarship to Goldsmiths, Cale engaged with the early flowerings of Fluxus before mixing with John Cage and La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music in New York’s downtown avant-garde scene. His droning viola, hammering piano and relentless bass brought the serrated edge to the Velvet Underground’s art music. More than anyone in the band, he rendered Reed’s whiplash words in sound.

After leaving in 1968, Cale’s solo career has often been exemplary: Paris 1919, Fear and Music for a New Society are particularly outstanding records, made during periods of intermittent derangement. Cale drank and drugged his way through the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s with at least as much abandon as Reed. He once chopped off the head of a chicken on stage and his version of Elvis Presley’s ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, performed wearing a hockey mask, like some driller-killer from a video nasty, is appreciably berserk.

Reed had few peers when it came to – sometimes performative – obstreperousness; he could be a thoroughly unpleasant interviewee, as I can attest. Cale, though more mercurial, is no slouch either. His voice, which fluctuates between a purr and a growl, is indicative. He’s like one of those cute animals which draw you close only to bite your hand off.

Like Leonard Cohen, Scott Walker and David Bowie, Cale has discovered a dark new energy in older age

Anyway, it’s not a competition, but you get the point. This is an artist of proven substance. And while Reed is nearly ten years’ dead, Cale is still pushing forward.

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