Album Review: John Cale, ‘POPtical Illusion’

The cover artwork and title of John Cale’s eighteenth solo album and second within a year suggests yet another reinvention. Restlessly curious and intent on stretching the boundaries of his songcraft – or, to steal his own wordplay, making an illusion of pop music – Cale was not going to make the same record twice. But looking beyond their contrasting covers, it’s clear that POPtical Illusion and MERCY arose from the same well of inspiration during the pandemic; before becoming an octogenarian in 2022, Cale wrote over 80 songs in a period of a little less than a year. The new album is no afterthought, however; the sounds are as densely layered and kaleidoscopic, the emotion undiluted yet delightfully obtuse. The smirking humour and playfulness of the album’s presentation seeps through to the music, but it’s pervaded by the same darkness that hung over MERCY – only less dour, more hopeful, and weirder still.

Perhaps it’s way Cale structures and positions himself in these songs that makes all the difference. MERCY was a largely collaborative album that featured guest appearances from artists like Weyes Blood, Laurel Halo, Animal Collective, and Tei Shei, while POPtical Illusion finds him burrowing “mostly alone into mazes of synthesizers and samples, organs and pianos,” according to press materials. The aloneness can be heard, but the key word here is “mostly.” Cale isn’t one to dwell on the past, but like MERCY, the new record is haunted by it, though it’s more of an internal dialogue, and we’re left wondering (or projecting) who the imagined other is. “There’s someone whispering in my ear tonight,” he intones on the opening track, ‘God Make Me Do It (don’t ask me again)’, offsetting its ominous trudge with the tender promise of “bringing them home tonight.” The night is ripe with hope and memory, where songs and stories are passed along, and, on the strangely ebullient  ‘Davies and Wales’, regret can turn into possibility: “If you’ve done things you’d wished you’ve never done/ Think of the things you’re going to do tonight.”

But it’s also where anger, so widely cast out at the world on MERCY, turns inward. POPtical Illusion is not without its fierce moments: the industrial ‘Company Commander’ rages at “the rightwingers burning their libraries down” (an easy target, admittedly), while the equally danceable and noisy ‘Shark-Shark’ churns in trepidation of an invisible yet pervasive threat. It’s interesting how, rather than descending into chaos, ‘Company Commander’ opts for a shimmery fadeout; it sounds like Cale isn’t so interested in stoking the fire. But the hour-long album, which mostly trades the dreamy soundscapes and fractured R&B of its predecessor for hip-hop and funk influences, also gives him the space to be earnest and forthright – to the point where we literally get a song called ‘I’m Angry’, which does away with metaphor and softens the feeling back to its melancholy foundation. With all the grooves reduced to mist, Cale finally calls out: “Who’s that dancing?” This intimacy – sometimes somber, mostly dreamlike – stretches through the entrancing ‘Laughing in My Sleep’, so tender despite its mechanized percussion, and it defines its most beautifully radiant highlight, ‘How We See the Light’.

On the song, Cale sings about learning a lesson “in the quiet ways of love,” and maybe that’s why he favours – or at least leans on – the quiet over the disquieting, which was MERCY’s dominant mood. With a gentle melody floating over its thumping drum machines and steady piano stabs, Cale verbalizes the questions that are often left hanging in the shadows of these songs: “Can I close another chapter in the way we run our lives?/ More decisive in the future, or deliberate in the end?” When Cale sings about the end – of a relationship, in this case, though it can mean so much more – he always seems to sing of the future; how far its edges can be pushed, how frantically and unexpectedly the past is bound to repeat itself. “We’ve been here so many times before,” he sings on the closer ‘There Will Be No River’, “But there was something you‘d see/ Or something you’d hear/ That made you come back again.” The reason, quite simply, is that it’s never quite the same.

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The cover artwork and title of John Cale's eighteenth solo album and second within a year suggests yet another reinvention. Restlessly curious and intent on stretching the boundaries of his songcraft – or, to steal his own wordplay, making an illusion of pop music...Album Review: John Cale, 'POPtical Illusion'