John Cale - Shifty Adventures In Nookie Wood
The struggle to stay relevant is one which troubles the minds of many established, respected musicians, and more so as the years pass. It's something they grope for in the cultural darkness, desperately, with varying levels of success. That's why we got much-maligned disco/new-wave/electro-pop flavoured albums by Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. That's why Jimmy Page did a song with P Diddy. That's why Lou Reed did that (rightfully) disparaged album with Metallica the other year.
With the presence of Danger Mouse on production duties for 'I Wanna Talk 2 U', the wah-pedal infused first track of Shifty Adventures In Nookie Wood - not to mention the txt/Prince spelling of the song's title - it seems that Reed's former bandmate is similarly struggling to retain relevance by hooking up with a hip, modern producer. But John Cale is not a musician who has ever attempted to try and fit an old-fashioned way of doing things into a modern shape - trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole - in the way that his contemporaries have.
Over his forty year career, Cale has worked with near-namesake John Cage-alike on experimental classical compositions, provided droning viola for the first, influential Velvet Underground LPs, cornered the market in baroque pop on his own classic Paris 1919, and played at being a seventies rock star - with a darker, intellectual edge, as evidenced on his creepy version of 'Heartbreak Hotel' or the confessional, visceral 'Guts' - during his first few albums on Island Records. He has recorded (for my money) the definitive version of Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah', just his voice - tinged still with his native Wales, despite a lifetime spent mostly in the States - and the piano, as heard in the first Shrek film. He has written lyrics that have served as blisteringly personal catharsis, as well as oblique retellings of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles
Danger Mouse - aka Brian Burton, one half of Gnarls Barkley and producer for everyone from Gorillaz to Norah Jones - was behind the desk only for that opening track, but his presence clearly kick-started something in Cale. ...Nookie Wood is the now 70-year-old musician's most engaging album in years, an exciting new permutation of his art-rock sensibilities.
Really, no artist has any right to be making music this good forty years into their career, let alone in a genre they've never worked in before. And yet, here it is: Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood is an LP which beats a new trail through dusty electronica, following faded footprints but twisting programmed drums and keys, rumbling bass, and Cale's unmistakable aged-to-perfection vocal chords, into new and interesting shapes: the mildly foreboding 'I Wanna Talk 2 U', the Talking Heads-alike 'Hemmingway', or the surreal shuffle of 'Face To The Sky', undoubted highlight of the album, with Cale singing through auto-tune of all things: "Dizzy as a dog on a chess board," closer to 808s and Heartbreaks, than Flo-Rida (or Styx's 'Mr Roboto').
That's how it's done.