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John Cale
Mercy Jeremy Allen , January 20th, 2023 13:15

At eighty years old, the grand old man of avant-rock remains as… challenging as ever, finds Jeremy Allen

Well he was never likely to make it easy was he? John Cale is back with his first full collection of new material in a decade and, on the surface of it, it all seems rather sheen-y and contemporary. At least for a little while. Several tracks will have passed you by before you realise that maybe Mercy is not as immediate as you first thought, despite the aforementioned contemporary sheen. It’s no Paris 1919, and it’s no Vintage Violence either. You, as the listener, will be required to do some work.

To call Mercy a slog would be dismissive and unduly harsh; challenging would be more appropriate. Given that we are in the presence of the 80-year-old godfather of avant-rock, you know that persistence will be its own reward eventually. Mercy is very much in the spirit of Cale’s 2020 single ‘Lazy Day’, a hazy, off-kilter morceau that masquerades as pop when it’s really avant-garde – the cutting edge production techniques and crisp beats belie the oddness, and you suspect that it was only left off because it has been out there now for nearly three years. This is dystopian dreampop for the digital age, with a repetitiveness to its phrasing that’s faintly reminiscent of latter day Scott Walker. That can become wearing at times, though Cale, too, should be commended for making an album that sounds readymade for 2023, trying on futuristic garb like a disgruntled replicant.

Opener and title track ‘Mercy’ with Laurel Halo is drenched in major seventh soul chords and reverb, as the Welshman addresses modernity obliquely. “Lives matter… lives don’t matter” he drawls, no doubt with BLM and its detractors in mind, while “the celebration started early / Everybody was upset / Couldn’t find a way to stop it / With so many left for dead”, could refer to the handling of the COVID pandemic, or he might have been thinking about something else entirely – thankful you’re never hit over the head with meaning here. ‘Marilyn Monroe’s Legs (Beauty Elsewhere)’ featuring Actress is even more oblique and oddly contrary too – it’s a track with a big room production vibe that’s so monastic in delivery its almost ascetic.

Considering the list of contributors on offer, it’s a far more singular and strange LP than you could have ever hoped for. ‘The Story Of Blood’ features the highly-rated Weyes Blood, while Blood Orange’s Devonté Hynes drops in to play guitar on ‘I Know You’re Happy’ bringing Tei Shi along for the ride. The Fat White Family sound nothing like themselves on ‘The Legal Status Of Ice’, while Animal Collective do imbue some of their maximalist influence on ‘Everlasting Days’, which turns out to be one of the unexpected highlights in spite of its byzantine messiness.

By the time you’ve reached ‘Night Crawling’, the eighth track here and the first single from the album that was sent out as a taster in August, it becomes apparent that that song contains perhaps the only chorus likely to hook in the casual listener. Whether too many of them will hang around is a moot point, though the rest of us should keep returning in order to wonder at one of 2023’s most profoundly out there albums. And it’s still only January.