Richard Whitehouse considers in detail John Cale’s Music For A New Society, back from its original release in 1982 and now in digital guise.
That John Cale should have chosen to make his 16th studio album the rewriting of his eighth is hardly provocative in itself. Not least as Music For A New Society remains in any case the most provocative of all his releases, coming at a time when Cale – poised on his fifth decade – was not so much reassessing his creative priorities as searching, uncertainly if by no means tentatively, for the way forward. That the way forward only made explicit its fraught genesis explains why Cale should wish to readdress such anxieties and, in doing so, transcend them.
Originally released in September 1982, Music For A New Society came in the midst of what is perhaps Cale’s most challenging creative period. Seemingly caught on the back-foot with the advent of punk rock, this most recalcitrant of singer-songwriters duly stormed the citadel in the visceral guise of 1979’s Sabotage/Live (among a select handful of live albums to consist wholly of new songs), followed by its studio complement in 1981’s waspishly sardonic Honi Soit. Finding himself without a touring back the following year became the catalyst for Cale to pursue a more inward and uncompromising take on those issues personal and social in its successor – the result of live improvisations at New York’s Sky Line Studios – and how like Cale to focus his acute emotional angst through the discipline of a ‘time is money’ schedule.
Warmly while equivocally received on its release, Music For A New Society predictably died a death in commercial terms and soon went out of print. For a 1993 reissue, Cale subjected it to a degree of revision – notably with the inclusion of the track ‘In the Library of Force’ for a close of magisterial despair. Appreciative of if understandably guarded as to the qualities of an album long held in high esteem, he performed it live at the Aarhus Festival in 2013 then refashioned it from scratch into the very different if no less absorbing statement of M:FANS.
This release comprises a remastered Music For A New Society (largely adhering to the 1993 revision), such as renders its claustrophobic intensity with even more unsparing immediacy, along with M:FANS: their differences (not so) paradoxically highlighting their relatedness.
The precise nature of that relationship is clear at the outset – the barbed nostalgia of blurred keyboards and acoustic slide guitars of ‘Taking Your Life in Your Hands’ now an ominous processional of fazed ambience and interpolated voices, while the world weary vocal as set against mindless ostinato patterns of ‘Thoughtless Kind’ yields to an agile vocal line made more tactile by an unwavering rhythmic backdrop as makes possible the heady culmination. ‘Sanctus’ (heard now in a ‘Sanities mix’ as though to acknowledge its history of mistitles) duly swaps a fragmented vocal given context by fugitive percussion and glowering organ for a dehumanized rendition made even more menacing by its remorseless electronic backing.
By the same token, the eloquent vocal as enhanced by a fervent organ contribution of ‘If You Were Still Around’ is accorded greater sonic presence through melding of its keyboards and guitars with a motoric rhythmic undertow. Most lauded among the original tracks, ‘(I Keep A) Close Watch’ (the stripped down reworking of an opulent ballad from 1975 album Helen of Troy) has now acquired a deft lilt to its vocal thanks to the soulful backing voices – while, in ‘Broken Bird’, the formerly haunting combination of imploring vocal with subtly shifting keyboards has taken on heightened expression with piano and electronics sharply separated.
The intimate confession with acoustic guitars and intertwined strings of ‘Chinese Envoy’ gets a complete rhythmic overhaul with syncopated backing vocals over a funky electronic groove – while ‘Changes Made’, with its almost affirmative vocal and full-on rock backing, receives a more circumspect treatment via a whimsical central interlude and narrower sonic ambience. ‘(In the) Library of Force’, its initial incarnation no less fateful despite loss of that slammed piano lid, is more self-contained with its spoken voice foregrounded and an equivocal close.
M:FANS finds no place for ‘Damned Life’, its careworn vocal thrown into relief against the skewed instrumental paraphrase of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, or the palpably uneasy amalgam of matter-of-fact recitation over an intrusive classical sample that is ‘Risé, Sam and Rimsky-Korsakov’. Music For A New Society is rounded off by out-takes of ‘Chinese Envoy’, heard in a ruminative acoustic version that is an almost perfectly realized demo, and ‘Thoughtless Kind’, which emerges as no less direct in its emphasizing one of Cale’s most revealing lyrics. M:FANS opens with ‘Prelude’, the fragmentary sample of a reticent phone-call between Cale and his mother as heard through a haze of processed ambience, and gains a second version of ‘If You Were Still Around’ whose discreet choral enhancement exudes even greater emotion. It closes with ‘Back to the End’ – a wistfully affecting number not so much abandoned as lost at the original sessions, and that makes for a restrained yet uplifting close wholly in keeping with the underlying affirmation of this ‘new’ album as well as (one presumes) of John Cale.
Make no mistake, such affirmation does not make M:FANS any ‘easier listening’ than was its parent album; rather the raw confessional of 33 years ago takes on a greater musical presence that conceivably serves to obscure or at least make the more oblique its singular perspective. As such, it fits securely into that sequence of albums which began with 2003’s HoboSapiens and then continued via 2005’s blackAcetate to 2012’s Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood: a sequence in which personal observation has been rendered no less expressively acute for all that its creator has become not so much a primarily emotive force as a teasingly provocative presence. Where Cale goes from here remains to be seen: he evidently has an album of new songs ready for later this year; meanwhile, his realizing of The Velvet Underground & Nico to mark its 50th anniversary of release should be no less timely or relevant than is M:FANS.