Nick Bollinger revisits a reimagining of a John Cale classic.
Though largely overlooked at the time, John Cale’s 1982 album Music For A New Society has become something of a cult classic among Cale-fanciers.
Of course the term ‘cult classic’ might be applied to Cale himself. The Welsh-born, classically-trained musician has managed to sustain a career of fifty years and counting, without ever having anything like a hit. Yet along the way he’s created some of the most admired and influential work in rock, from the groundbreaking inventions of the Velvet Underground, through his productions of The Stooges, Patti Smith, and The Modern Lovers, to his own exploratory solo work.
Music For A New Society is as exploratory and as solitary an album as Cale ever made. By his own account, he was not in the best frame of mind at the time of the original recording. His life was dominated by alcohol and drugs, and the songs belied the optimism of the album’s title. The opening track ‘Taking Your Life In Your Hands’ finds a mother being taken away by ‘blue men in uniform’ for an unnamed crime. One worries about the children.
In his new version, the stately piano chords of the original have gone, replaced by a funereal beat and a forbidding electronic landscape. Is it improved? I have to say I favour the plainer, melodic approach of the 1982 version. Still, it shows Cale’s commitment to creativity. He’s not just reeling off an old favourite; he’s stripping it bare, then rebuilding it using modern tools. And that goes for the whole album.
Cale has said that in remaking this album he found himself loathing ‘each and every character written about in those original recordings’. And that’s understandable. The characters in these songs voice some pretty disturbing and nihilistic sentiments. Yet Cale’s original delivery imbued those characters with a humanity that these new, far more objective readings, seem to lack.
It’s obvious that Cale is in a different physical and psychological place now than he was when he wrote these songs, and just as well; if he weren’t, he’d be lucky to be here at all. And the way in which he has gone about shining a light on this largely forgotten collection, dragging the songs into the present, treating it as a creative rather than nostalgic project, is only to be admired. And neither is he coercing us into accepting his revisions; the new CD comes with a second disc, the original long-out-of-print recording, remastered and sounding as scary and unsentimental as ever.
Songs played: Prelude; Changes Made; Taking Your Life In Your Hands; Thoughtless Kind; Chinese Envoy; Broken Bird; If You Were Still Around