Set fire to anything. Set fire to the air," urged John Cale at the beginning of Music For A New Society. That 1982 masterpiece was the evisceration of a man whose fractured psyche was mirrored perfectly by songs arranged in jagged, improvisatory style; a knife held at the throat of sweetness. Now he reappears with his first album of songs for seven years, and his finest album in any genre for over two decades.
Set fire to anything. Set fire to the air,” urged John Cale at the beginning of Music For A New Society. That 1982 masterpiece was the evisceration of a man whose fractured psyche was mirrored perfectly by songs arranged in jagged, improvisatory style; a knife held at the throat of sweetness. Now he reappears with his first album of songs for seven years, and his finest album in any genre for over two decades. In its harnessing of new technology in the service of aesthetic extremism, Hobosapiens may well constitute the most radical music of his entire career.
This spring’s taster, 5 Tracks, was the first sign that Cale, who for the last two years has been mastering Pro Tools technology in his Greenwich Village studio, was ready to stun us again; but not even that was preparation for this onslaught. Touching on geopolitics, dictators and Armageddon, pairing melody and dissonance, rhythm and rupture, this album’s only parallel in contemporary music is Scott Walker’s Tilt (1995). It’s both more and less extreme, however: in tilting at the mainstream, the spleen and vision of Hobosapiens seem all the more audacious.
Aided by co-producer Nick Franglen, one half of bucolic chill-out specialists Lemon Jelly, Cale?with one remarkable exception?does not ‘go dance’ on this record, and the electronic burrs and savagely witty samples are a world away from Lemon Jelly’s primary-coloured, Camberwick Green version of house music. Cale, ever eager for the new, devours the latest technology but crucially also understands it exists to service emotion and/or experiment. (In contrast, Cale’s 1985 album Artificial Intelligence sags under the weight of midi technology, its contemporary innovation.)
The first sounds you hear are those of a repeated, unresolved synth chord, like a tolling bell, followed by breakbeats. You might think, idly, you’re listening to The Blue Nile when Cale’s unmistakable Welsh baritone looms into view. Listen to what he’s singing: “Heroes turning on a spit/The lovers unable to resolve a prehistoric bitch.” It’s about the war, of course, and there’s even a sideswipe at Blair (“Stating the obvious/A monkey and his grinder/But on a different plane”). And even The Blue Nile could never have conceived the Cecil Taylor-ish freeform piano which destabilises the song at its fade.
The two tracks that follow (“Reading My Mind” and “Things”) are comparatively light-hearted, but the relevance of “Things” (whose “the things you do in Denver when you’re dead” refrain nods to the late Warren Zevon) becomes more dramatically apparent later in the album, when the song returns in a radically different form. It’s as if Cale is deliberately contrasting the twin poles of his muse: singalong pop and pop abstracted, each highlighting the other.
Gradually, the sky darkens. “Look Horizon” finds Cale “on the beach in Zanzibar”, awaiting extinction. Soon, a guitar careers in as he watches the “land of the Pharaoh” being decimated (“The broken amulets of history strewn in the pits”). “Magritte”, an awestruck homage to the painter which prompts some of Cale’s most mellifluous singing, includes a divine moment at 2:22 when he sings “Pinned to the edges of vision” and switches to falsetto. You might say he’s doing Radiohead better than Radiohead.
“Caravan” is one of the album’s two great set-pieces, Cale “slipping away from Planet Earth”, spreading before us a panorama of the whole burning planet, from the Norfolk Broads to Niagara Falls; a more grievous echo of the journey from Reykjavik to Phnom Penn made by the protagonist of “Sanities” (from Music For A New Society). “Bicycle”?the nearest he gets to ‘going dance’?ought to be Cale’s first hit single. Lemon Jelly’s usual Ealing Studios-goes-house approach is usefully subverted here, not merely by the breathless “do do do do” refrain, but in its eventual overwhelming by a cacophony of sheep noises, giggling women (“ponce!”) and Cale’s trademark Rottweiler guitar.
There is no such easy humour in the coming avalanche. Without warning, a crashing piano chord shoves us into “Twilight Zone”, where Cale plays the role of the doomed tyrant, holed up in his bunker in the South of France, demanding the destruction of everything, like the Michael Stipe of “World Leader Pretend” but even more barbed (“The milk of human kindness has curdled in your cup”). Eventually, over a choir of demented Beach Boys vocal harmonies, Cale starts to scream orders?”Give up the ghost! Bring out your dead! Get on with your work! Kick out the jams!”
You would think this track was Cale at his most nihilistic (though, in fact, this is the violence of someone who really gives a shit), but it pales in intensity beside the near-demonic “Letter From Abroad”. Inspired by journalist Saira Shah’s television documentary about the Taliban’s occupation of Afghanistan, and written before 9/11, it sees Cale reach new peaks of rage. Powered by an avant-R&B groove (imagine current Cale favourites The Beta Band covering Blackstreet’s “No Diggety”), Cale narrates the countdown to Year Zero (“In a few hours the heat will hang over town/As the north-east monsoon comes rolling in”). Screaming viola and guitar take over as he intones: “They’re cutting their heads off in the soccer fields/Stretching their necks in the goal.” A distant voice of doom booms out over a Ligeti choir. The track fades to the sound of a marching band playing “Land Of Hope And Glory”. Britain has long since surrendered.
The second version of “Things” (“Things (X)”?”Things” multiplied by an unknown factor) emerges from the wreckage, the stench of decay evident everywhere. No more singalong pop as Cale slurs and sneers “Keep your gun in your pocket and your tongue in your mouth” over ugly guitar and a piano’s death throes.
The record ends with a love song of sorts: “Over Her Head”?though it’s a strange kind of love song that begins with the words, “She sees flames in the kitchen/It’s a vision of hell,” or concludes, “She loves everybody/She’ll even love me.” By the closing viola squall, hope seems out of reach. Or perhaps it’s the bruised hope of a realist (‘What’s the best I can actually expect?’).
Hobosapiens isn’t quite Cale’s masterpiece; that title still belongs to Music For A New Society. But it is music whose scope, erudition and vitriol (to borrow a phrase from the poet Adrienne Rich: “My visionary anger cleansing my sight”) makes everything else in this year of exceptional musical timidity seem puny. Anger without apology; ideology without either dilution or dogma; a perfect synthesis of medium and message: Cale has (re)discovered the ability to rage correctly, and he’s needed now more than ever.