Autobiographical Order No. 71: John Cale – Music for a New Society

It doesn’t seem right to be talking about this album (let alone listening — which I did) on a day like today. The sun is out, birds are singing, and I’m enjoying my coffee while my cat is spazzing out.  Why isn’t it right? Because John Cale’s Music for a New Society is the kind of album that immediately darkens any room in which it’s playing. I first heard about this album in an old Alternative Press article called 10 Suicide Soundtracks, which comprised some of the darkest albums ever recorded. Three of the albums were by ex-Velvet Underground members (the other two were Lou Reed’s Berlin and Nico’s The Marble Index), but by and large I actually loved a lot of the albums on the list, like Joy Division’s Closer, Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate, and Iggy Pop’s The Idiot. I wrote a similar list a few years ago called 10 Albums that will ruin your summer, and forgot this one. Oh well.

Like yesterday’s Talk Talk album that I wrote about, this one was an album I bought without ever hearing, on the strength of its reputation alone. I like dark music, and I have a pretty strong tolerance for music that sets other people on edge, but this one is peculiar. It’s only occasionally abrasive, like on “Sanities,” which is abrasive and terrifying enough to match up with anything on Scott Walker’s The Drift (an album I love, because I’m weird). But a lot of it is just depressing — the ’80s keyboards in “Taking Your Life In Your Hands” sound like the soundtrack to an after-school special where the lesson everyone learns is that life is essentially meaningless and suffering is the only path forward.

Of course, there’s an art to this. John Cale is actually really good at making albums that go into really dark places; if you haven’t heard his twisted cover of “Heartbreak Hotel,” then give it a listen to see how he can make a ’50s rock ‘n’ roll song into a nightmare. He also has a lot of albums that are pretty, upbeat, and even rock hard at times, but this one is different. It has its moments of accessibility, like the sorta funky, sorta rockin’ “Changes Made,” or the nigh-single “(I Keep a) Close Watch,” which turns the opening line of a Johnny Cash song into a anthemic, if paranoid statement.

This is absolutely one of Cale’s finest hours — not his best, though. My vote’s for the more well-rounded Fear. But this is the kind of risk that pays off, even if it takes you somewhere you didn’t necessarily want to go.

Rating: 9.1

Sound Quality: Great

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