Search The Line of Best Fit
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POPtical Illusion radiates John Cale's peace with the past

"POPtical Illusion"

Release date: 14 June 2024
John Cale Poptical Illusion cover
13 June 2024, 09:00 Written by Simon Heavisides

Let’s go back to basics and judge two records by their covers.

2023’s deliciously disquieting Mercy: a dark and disturbing red on black slab. This year’s (yes, not much more than 12 months later) POPtical Illusion? A playful photomontage shot through with blue and the occasional pop of pink.

Maybe he’s making it easy for us to spot that these two lockdown-written long players are both equally valid yet enjoyably different? Making it easy for the listener does however seem seriously out of character.

Apparently John Cale spends the majority of his days working in his L.A. studio. It is, he says, “what keeps me going.” That’s a revealing admission and one that underscores the emotional weight of both albums, which were shaped from a continuous stretch of what sounds like a close to frenzied, but methodical, creative surge.

Considering the results we can only be grateful.

Not for the first time in his career Cale manages to give us music that is as much challenging as it is approachable. We have generous open-hearted pop songs like “Davies and Wales”, where the talk is of a desire to lift a friend or acquaintance up and out of a focus on past failures, rubbing up against the ominous tread of “Calling You Out”. Here a circling acoustic guitar accompanies a twinkling keyboard riff while being buffeted by queasy effects and heavy beats as manipulated backing vocals sigh and appear to mock.

That uneasy sense of non-specific doom is never too far away, even if hidden just below the surface.

The splintered guitar and vicious hammer of the drums on “Shark-Shark” have an irresistible momentum, but amongst its cast of curious characters lurks someone named Cesar who, “sharpens knives, in the back of the van.”

Cale doesn’t try to recreate the magic of past work, but rather mines it for inspiration and then holds it up to the scrutiny of the present, twisting what he extracts into new shapes informed by whatever his emotional reality is today. “Edge of Reason” quotes “Fear is a Man’s Best Friend” but instead of reaching that song’s unhinged peak eases us towards an almost choral expression of hope.

Elsewhere the insistent piano stabs that mesh with the fragmented beats driving “How We See the Light”, still allow space for a wistful melody, filtering through the gaps in the sound. It feels like a collage, continually shifting, keeping the listener on their toes just like Cale has always at least aimed to do. Forever a musician able to have you recoiling from the horror while swooning at the beauty.

Mercy revealed a (unexpectedly?) compassionate core that is exposed again on POPtical Illusion. A fitting reaction to the hellscape we are driving deeper into, but Cale being Cale in a recent interview with Uncut he seemed to grudgingly acknowledge the compassionate element while immediately undercutting it by claiming to have run out of lyrics. In the same conversation he confirms what we must surely have already known, “Is getting under people’s skin a constant goal for me? Yes…”

POPtical Illusion demonstrates that that goal additionally involves both entertaining and moving us. Cale’s ability to do so many things so well is what makes him a true artist amongst amateurs, but it's also a clear disregard of the need to encourage people to like him that feels refreshing in an age where there seems to be a desperate stampede in the opposite direction. All entirely befitting of a man who co-founded the Velvet Underground, the template for cult bands ad infinitum, most of whom didn’t really grasp the real inspiration they were drawing on.

We can only look to what comes next because with John Cale there’s always a sense of travelling, never settling. For him, it’s the future that still holds the most promise and I guess there’s a kind of much needed optimism in that.

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