CD Review: John Cale, M:FANS

Music for a new societyI remember it being a dreary autumn in New York City, back in 1982. It was the Reagan years, and New York was a desolate city. Music was undergoing changes: disco was waning, Talking Heads had found rhythm, and I was listening to music by Joy Division, The Durutti Column, The Cure, The Clash, and others. Lou Reed and Velvet Underground were in rotation, and when I spotted John Cale’s new LP, Music for a New Society, in a record store on Bleecker Street, I bought it right away.

The Velvet Underground was never the cheeriest of bands, and John Cale’s solo music oscillated between sing-along-able songs and experimental music. Music for a New Society was no different. It’s a dark, album, full of angst, yet with such a powerful musical message that I spun it often, and copied it to cassette to listen on my Walkman. Recorded in New York, this album matched the atmosphere of the time.

I hadn’t heard this record in ages. I no longer have the LP, and while it was released on CD in 1993 and 1994, it’s been out of print for a long time, and used copies were quite expensive. Finally, Cale has re-released this record, in a two-disc set. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) The first CD contains the original album and two outtakes, remastered, and the second disk, M:FANS, is:

a visceral new reworking of the album under the title M:FANS – a record that explores the relationship between old and new, in terms of the sound and vision, and Cale’s memories of the experience, in terms of his life, and the recording.

Many of the songs are dark. Cale himself, talking about the recording session, is quoted as saying:

That album was agony. It was like method acting. Madness. Excruciating. I just let myself go. It became a kind of therapy, a personal exorcism. The songs are mostly about regret and misplaced faith.

There were some examples where songs ended up so emaciated they weren’t songs any more. What I was most interested in was the terror of the moment… It was a bleak record all right, but it wasn’t made to make people jump out of windows.

But it’s not all dark. Three of the songs – (I Keep a) Close Watch, Thoughtless Kind, and Chinese Envoy – are beautifully crafted art songs, closer to Schubert’s lieder, or perhaps to Leonard Cohen, than to the Velvet Underground. (A version of the former is on the 1975 album Helen of Troy.) Cale performed these two songs extensively, and you can hear live versions on the wonderful Fragments of a Rainy Season. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

The only song real “rock” song on the album is Changes Made, which features a full band and Blue Öyster Cult’s Allen Lanier playing lead guitar; it’s the “odd one out” song on the album, one that simply doesn’t belong. The rest of the songs were recorded with Cale playing most of the instruments, essentially him accompanied by guitar or keyboard, with some percussion and other odd sounds overdubbed. Changes Made stands out against what is more like an art song cycle than a rock album.

JohnCale MFansThe second disc in this set is M:FANS. Cale said, after the death of Lou Reed:

Making any form of art is always personal to my mind. During the making of M:FANS, I found myself loathing each and every character written about in those original recording sessions of Music For… Unearthing those tapes reopened those wounds. It was time to decimate the despair from 1981 and breathe new energy, re-write the story. Then, the unthinkable happened. What had informed so much over lost and twisted relationships in 1981 had now come full circle. Losing Lou [too painful to understand] forced me to upend the entire recording process and begin again…a different perspective – a new sense of urgency to tell a story from a completely opposite point of view – what was once sorrow, was now a form of rage. A fertile ground for exorcism of things gone wrong and the realization they are unchangeable. From sadness came the strength of fire!!!”

M:FANS is a sort of re-imagining of the original album. Thirty years later, Cale returned to this music and created different versions of the songs. They still retain the original shades of gray, but with a more electronic sound. The order of the songs is slightly different, and there’s a Prelude – a phone call between Cale and his mother, with musical embroidery – and a closing song, Back to the End, which was recorded with the original disc but never released.

Some of the songs sound Enoesque, such as Taking Your Life In Your Hands, which features processed vocals and electronic backing. (Cale recorded an album with Brian Eno: Wrong Way Up.) Thoughtless Kind sounds a bit like Lady Gaga, with autotune and a dance-floor beat. The new version of Chinese Envoy, with backing singers and a finger-snapping background, becomes a poppy tune. Changes Made has a heavy metal sound. Close Watch has become an EDM track with a sort of Kraftwerk beat.

M:FANS is an interesting experiment, taking a set of songs that Cale clearly cared a lot for and bringing them up to the present using the wide variety of musical styles available today. Music for a New Society was nearly the opposite: a denial of the music predominant in 1982, a stripping away of the excesses of the studio. M:FANS is certainly harder for me to get into, and I listen to it as a set of remixes, since I find the original album to be such a masterpiece. But listeners new to these songs will likely have the opposite opinion; they’re more likely to like the new versions and find the old songs to be too dark.

With this double album, John Cale shows two sides of his music, and reminds many of us how much we’ve missed him. He’s been playing a handful of concerts lately, and I hope I get a chance to see him live again and hear him perform this music.

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