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John Cale - Mercy (Album Review)

Monday, 23 January 2023 Written by Jacob Brookman

Photo: Madeline McManus

John Cale’s ‘Mercy’ is excellent: a sprawling, story-laden collection of avant-garde songs that starts with relatively soundscapey work before edging more leftfield from there. It is also a timely record. Todd Haynes’ 2021 film on the Velvet Underground—the band Cale co-founded with Lou Reed in the mid 1960s—has refreshed and rejuvenated interest in the pioneers of art-rock.

It also served to remind audiences of Cale’s huge influence on the band, and the legions of musicians who followed. Little wonder, perhaps, that Cale has seen fit to bring a host of collaborators on ‘Mercy’, to consistently interesting effect.

Story of Blood, featuring Weyes Blood, is an electronic dirge with a trap beat, using layers of synths as a mystifying backing on vocal loops. It’s bleak but compelling, occasionally recalling David Bowie’s final album ‘Blackstar’.

Indeed, Bowie shows up in the subject matter (and video) of single Night Crawling. This track is a rumbling toe tapper recalling the 1970s New York nights when the two British expats would go out drinking. It pairs boom-bap drum loops with diaphanous electric piano and dream-pop synths. It’s probably the closest thing to a pop track, and makes for invigorating listening.

Another high point retells the story of Velvet Underground collaborator and singer. On Moonstruck (Nico’s Song), the lyrics are stark: “You’re a moonstruck junkie lady, staring at your feet / Breathing words into an envelope / To be opened on your death.” It’s mournful, inquisitive stuff and Cale’s echoey crooning creates a radical cocktail. Cale produced and arranged three of Nico's solo albums before her untimely passing in Ibiza, Spain, at the age of 49.

Despite the familiar material, 'Mercy' is no tired nostalgia trail. At 80 years old, Cale has succeeded in excavating many of the history-facing relationships of his life, and re-presenting them in a way that is distinctive and respectful. We are hearing a composer who is still incredibly curious about art, sounds and magic. If it is to be his final record (and let’s hope not), then it is a fitting one. As another radical Welshman once remarked, “Old age should burn and rave at close of day.”

John Cale Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Mon February 06 2023 - LIVERPOOL Philharmonic Hall
Wed February 08 2023 - LONDON London Palladium
Fri February 10 2023 - BEXHILL ON SEA De La Warr Pavilion
Sat February 11 2023 - BIRMINGHAM Birmingham Town Hall
Sun February 12 2023 - CAMBRIDGE Corn Exchange

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