John Cale
Black Acetate

alfred: This record is a failure. Too weird and ornery for yeoman's work but too old to rely on weirdness and orneriness, Black Acetate coasts on dead melodies, half-assed studio experiments, and ballads he's not up for singing anymore, with almost none of the ravaged grace it was still his to command in the early '90s, when the sobriety he contributed to the Eno collab Wrong Way Up and the Lou Reed collab Songs For Drella was a codicil to his frivolous colleagues (which is not to say that frivolity can’t signify on its own).

Cale faces a problem that neither recent Tom Waits nor Leonard Cohen have overcome: he can't sing anymore. The cracks in his voice are put to lovely use on “Gravel Drive,” the only man to convincingly draw upon the Man of Constant Sorrow schtick which made his cover of “Hallelujah” a revelation. To compensate, he relies on the grotesqueries he should have outgrown when he beheaded chickens on stage; and when these fail the gap between the aim and the achievement is wide enough to make you loath sixtysomethings with recording contracts.

Justin: Black Acetate as a whole is a dismantling of pop form. He's writing catchy songs, but then destroying any sense of finery in an effort that's as much an undercutting of the pop concept of immediate gratification as it is a piece of aural pleasure in its own right. Much like solemnity needs its goofy counterpart, “Perfect” is the pop foil to the decomposing sounds and structures of the rest of the album. It's a centering moment; in the midst of all the studio trickery and formal experiments, this song reminds us that we are, after all, listening to rock 'n' roll.

His voice? Yeah, it's pretty much shot, but it's of a piece with his music. He isn't a crooner, and the term "ballads" isn't really applicable here in the traditional sense. He's straddling rough art and pop music, and really it's a more intriguing position than the pleasant theatrical balladeering of Paris 1919.

Alfred: You're right about Cale's m.o. In those mid '70s albums beginning with Fear (still perhaps his finest album), Cale became a willful deconstructionist, soiling the white dresses of those beguiling numbers on Paris 1919. “Gun” and “Barracuda,” my two favorites from that period, obscure their conventional chords with instrumental filigrees that makes Cale's Velvet Underground work seem like The Miracles in comparison; but a deconstructionist is at heart a repentant formalist, and in the last 20 years Cale has returned to formalism. Let's not forget that the man is a classically trained musician.

The trouble with Black Acetate, Justin, is that Cale has lost the ability to write good songs and is no longer adept at subverting the structures of weaker ones—a heartbreaking dilemma. The advance publicity cited Cale's interest in Timbaland and The Neptunes, which is quite disturbing: if “Brotherman” is Cale's “Drop It Like It's Hot,” then the man is in more trouble than I thought. When he growls, "I can write reams of this shit," his voice lands on the last word with the faintest of emphasis, and the tone is certainly not self-deprecating.

Justin: Really, the Timbaland and Neptune references are absurd. I read lots of Faulkner and love it (and you can feel free to use that in my advance press), but that doesn't mean you'll find sentences that go on for hundreds of words in my writing. I find “Brotherman” more intriguing than you, because I'm unable to put my finger on just what that pivotal line means. My initial thought was that it was a character study about stardom. Despite the percussion, it's not Cale's "Drop It Like It's Hot"—it's his “Crack Music.” In the end, all that care leads up to an evocative song with an indeterminate meaning.

Alf, I'd like to hear your thoughts on "Sold-Motel," which, after "Perfect" is the most riff-based and classic-rock-sounding track on the album. It's the one that doesn't quite fit my theory of what Black Acetate does, but it's probably my favorite song on the disc, partially because of the fantastic guitar/effects solo.

Alfred: Hey, Justin, if we ever hang out, I'll bring the beer and we can play “Sold Motel” and “American Woman” back to back (they’re almost the same song). Anyway, yes, “Sold Motel” is marvelous. I have no idea what Cale's going on about—figure it's another selection of "Buffalo Ballet”-style Western movie tropes—but it's ugly and menacing. I was taken with the middle-eight, which features choir effects last heard on 1975's “Mr. Wilson,” a Beach Boys homage that's equal parts affection and pure camp. This is the Cale song of my dreams, by which I mean it's an “evocative song with an indeterminate meaning.”

I'm not interested in Cale's theories on stardom. For one, he's too willfully destructive. If he'd continued to behead chickens on stage he might have opened for Ozzy on the No More Tears tour, but, oh, an artist's muse is a fickle thing. Secondly, he's NOT a star and not someone people give a damn about these days; maybe if he wrote lots of reams of shit and released them at a more accelerated pace…While I'll agree that "I can write reams of this shit” shows a charming humility, it's also not the kind of statement Cale should be making now.

Justin: Interesting—I didn't mention the middle eight because I thought that might be something you wouldn't like, that it might be too much of a hearkening back. I enjoy it on its own, but I also like the way it sets up a guitar solo, but not the one that happens.

Getting back to “Brotherman,” I think the singer is a character. Cale clearly can't write reams of any shit, even if he's released albums two years in a row. As far as fame, is it really something he's interested in (I really don't know)? He still has those classical roots, and, judging just by the classical composers and musicians I know, critical success is always more important than public fame, although name recognition within given circles remains key. Could Cale be talking specifically to critics with this one?

Alfred: I'm not sure who comprises Cale's audience in 2005. Velvet fans? Fellow musicians? Snoop and Timbaland? Well, include me as a querulous fan. Black Acetate presents us nothing we don't already know about Cale, but despite my reservations I'm glad he made it. While Bowie and Reed swathe new variations on their obsessions in deluxe production, Cale, with admirable perversity, writes reams of his shit and records them at his own pace.

Buy it at Insound!

Reviewed by: Justin Cober-Lake & Alfred Soto
Reviewed on: 2005-12-05
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