Shifty Adventures in Criticism: A John Cale ReviewMusic — By Keaton Lamle on November 27, 2012 at 3:00 am
Far too often, music reviewers succumb to the pressure to have an opinion.
There are so many instances in which a piece of art fails to elicit any affective response whatsoever, and said individual is left with no choice but to come up with an angle on an artifact they simply could not care any less about. The advantage to that scenario, however, is that you can always just make some stuff up. Things get significantly more difficult when a) one actually does care a whole awful lot about the work they are writing about and b) finds themselves without one definitive, succinct opinion as to the merit of a particular album, but rather holding to an amorphous blob of ever-shifting and (sometimes) contradictory opinions about the collection of songs in question.
Such is my predicament with John Cale’s Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood. I can’t help but care about the solo work of anybody who was ever in a band with Lou Reed, and so I’m especially keen on anything put out by the founding member of an outfit as seminal, groundbreaking, and drug-addled as The Velvet Underground (I’ve had that banana album cover hanging on my wall for years). And still I find myself completely unable to tell whether or not the Underground guitarist’s most recent foray into experimental dance mush is any good at all.
For one thing, I am completely thrown by the album’s title, and attempts at clarification via google have only served to confuse me more while leaving a whole mess of ‘splaining to do when the porn filter on our computer sends my wife its weekly email rundown of possibly offensive searched terms. At this point I am almost convinced that the title serves mainly to communicate something about Cale himself, namely this: You don’t become the world’s only septuagenarian avant-garde rocker by worrying about what society deems “normal” or “deviant” or “a little creepy” or whatever.
And Cale certainly doesn’t seem to care, insisting repeatedly amidst mercurial instrumentation that he is “doing hard time in the Nookie Wood,” which just suggests so many inappropriate images and entendres that I am going to leave it alone. The unease one gets when listening to this sort of thing is hard to describe, and probably best communicated with an anecdote:
Until the past day or so temperatures in my city have consistently topped 90 degrees. (Fahrenheit, obviously. Don’t be dumb.) My car has no air conditioning. I’ve been listening to the Cale album nonstop in same car for weeks, and will only do so with the windows up. Compared to the prospect of a stranger or someone who attends my church overhearing the sorts of things Cale does here with his voice and synthesizers, the pools of sweat and vague BO smell that, at this point, seems permanently stamped onto my vehicle’s interior, seem like small prices to pay for discrete listening.
Adding to my confusion are the songs themselves: Numbers alternate between surprisingly good and unbelievably boring at a ratio of exactly 1:1. The album opens with lead single, “I Wanna Talk 2 U”, a stunning, Danger Mouse-produced rejoinder to anyone who thinks that the elderly can’t rock (from what I’ve seen on Life Alert commercials, it seems pretty clear that at least some of them are more than capable of “rolling”). Unfortunately, this dirty mid tempo rocker sets up unrealistic (and certainly unfulfilled) expectations for the rest of the record, which, even in its best moments, sounds like it was written and recorded in the early 1990s. Hence Cale’s (hopefully) ironic use of such nineties conventions of using the digit “2” to communicate “to” and substitution of the letter “U” for the pronoun “you”. It is important to understand that this is not a totally bad thing. While almost everyone I know loathes the boxy, reverb-laden drum sounds featured prominently on Peter Gabriel records between, let’s say, 1986 and 1992, I happen to love them. Meaning that the throwback nature of Shifty Adventures is one of the things I find most charming about it.
The problem is that after twenty minutes or so of continued listening said throwback charm can begin to seem less “nostalgic” and more “grating”. Basically, for every dreamy romp through Cale’s dark imagination (“Sandman [Flying Dutchman])”, the listener is forced to sit through sound collages disguised as songs that would have been better left on the cutting room floor (“Vampire Cafe”). For every sonic idea that seems novel or interesting from a production perspective, there is another more prominently featured idea, comparable to the intense freshness of the first only in its insipidity.
The idea that I have been dancing around now for the better part of 1000 words is this: It is hard to get a handle on an album this inconsistent and strange. It feels unfair to call Shifty Adventures a success, because I simply do not want to live in a world where tracks like “Mothra” are considered anything other than abject musical failure. And there are a whole heap of tracks like that. It feels equally erroneous to call the record a failure, because there are a number of moments of excellence (“Hemmingway”, “Mary”) and shouldn’t guys this old get credit just for trying(?) and also I’d be lying through my teeth if I said that I felt comfortable saying whether or not Cale has succeeded or failed at a goal so strange that its true nature is almost certainly clear to him, and him alone. Essentially, in his latest effort he has spectacularly succeeded as often as he has dismally failed. For every virtue contained therein, Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood contains some damning flaw. For each moment of clarity and musical grace there is a complimentary mind-numbing drone of noise. John Cale’s latest record is as good as it is bad. And I suppose that is what we normally call “mediocrity”.