John Cale has a history of straying away from the iconic Velvet Underground 1960s pop-rock. His divergences have led critics to describe his more recent music as “avant-garde.” Not the type of avant-garde music that perpetually hovers over audiences’ heads, but the kind that leaves people feeling slightly unsettled yet still satisfied. John Cale’s most recent album Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood is no different.
It seems as if Cale has disconnected himself from his Velvet Underground roots and drawn from influences of later decades. The track “Scotland Yard” sounds like a combination of the glam-y yet discordant pop of Depeche Mode combined with Peter Gabriel. Overall the tracks have a satisfying level of creativity. Cale definitely put thought and effort into their production, but they all leave me feeling slightly uncomfortable—as if Cale is trying to insert himself in a movement that hasn’t quite embraced him. Most tracks, including “December Rains,” auto-tune and mechanize Cale’s voice and are slightly cringe-worthy. These are completely unnecessary tricks. Most can be taken seriously as “avant-garde” without blatantly editing their vocals to sound more mechanical.
Cale is among a group of many musicians from his era who are experimenting with modern musical trends. This is evident with Tom Waits’ most recent album Bad as Me. In fact, title track “Nookie Wood” embodies the same electro-hip hop style found throughout Bad as Me. The difference between the two albums is that Bad as Me still maintains Waits’ iconic raspiness and rough edge, yet Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood doesn’t contain anything that is definitively Cale.
This isn’t to say it’s a bad album. It will definitely attract the scene of those excited by things like David Lynch’s music video “Crazy Clown Time.” As has become increasingly popular among today’s alternative musicians, the majority of the album is odd without failing to be melodic. “Vampire Cafe” epitomizes this combination. The chord structure feels familiar and predictable, but uses atypical instruments, including a synthesized accordion and African drums.
After listening to this album all the way through for the first time, I immediately turned on Velvet Underground’s classic tune “Sweet Jane.” Although I did not grow up to hear this music released, I felt nostalgic. Part of me wanted to hear Cale reproduce music reminiscent of a past era. But artistry isn’t stagnant. It’s great that artists like Tom Waits, John Cale and even Thurston Moore are embracing the creativity of this generation on not just resting on their laurels of past success.