Despite being the classically trained and avant-garde-credentialed half of The Velvet Underground’s core, John Cale wound up embracing pop music far more enthusiastically than Lou Reed. Granted, that embrace was always a cool, prickly one. Starting with his first post-VU solo album, 1970’s Vintage Violence, Cale has had an on-again-off-again—and entirely unrequited—love affair with pop, due mostly to the clinical distance and detached curiosity with which he’s always approached conventional songcraft. Like J.G. Ballard’s early work as a pulp writer, Cale’s dabbling in populism (sans popularity) lends him a dilettante’s eye for the approach. With his new album, Shifty Adventures In Nookie Wood, Cale is once again juggling gut-punches and brain-freezes.
“Hey, wake up / I want to talk to you,” Cale intones in Nookie Wood’s Danger Mouse-produced opener, “I Wanna Talk 2 U.” The spelling of the title, coupled with icy slivers of funk guitar, hint at some sort of Prince homage, although any intention to that effect is crushed beneath Cale’s ominous, glacial baritone. In fact, it’s not made clear exactly what Cale wants to talk to about—and that doesn’t change as the album flows along. From the churning future-tribalism of “Scotland Yard” to the electro-slanted, Giorgio Moroder-esque “December Rains,” the disc props up Cale’s sardonic, cryptic, typically perverse lyrics—“I’m trying to keep the noise down / With a knife in the gut”—with minimal beats and splints of synth.
One implement Cale underutilizes is the one that put him on the map: the viola. In fact, there’s very little organic presence in the instrumentation—and what is presented in acoustic form, such as the guitar on the elegantly melancholy “Living With You,” is played as if through a robotic glove. Measuring out melodic austerity with all the passion of an IV bag, Cale converts the disc’s solemn closer, “Sandman (Flying Dutchman),” from a folkloric wisp into a bitmapped, breathtaking cloudscape. It’s always a thrill to hear Cale pick up pop music and give it a hug, as he does with awkward, abstract glee on Nookie Wood—even if he breaks a few of its bones in the process.