For a 70-year-old man who occasionally dyes his hair pink and whose résumé includes seminal collaborations with Patti Smith, John Cage, and Andy Warhol, it’s hardly surprising that John Cale’s new album, Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood, is both provocative and strange. But despite avant-garde impulses that, in the past, have led Cale’s work into forbidding musical terrain, the album is also beautiful and inviting.
In recent years, Cale, a founding member of the Velvet Underground, has proven himself to be both willing and capable of delivering consistently memorable album-oriented rock (Hobosapiens was exploratory and ornate, while Black Acetate was minimal, aggressive, and stark), and the artfully crafted Nookie Wood is no exception. The album’s lead single, the spacious and ethereal “Face to the Sky,” lacks a clear melody, but it’s led instead by layers of colliding rhythmic samples accompanied by a sort of continuo of piano and ethereal vocals. The result is hypnotic, with Cale’s vocals floating in from the ether.
Paranoia is a recurring theme throughout Nookie Wood. Beginning with the barbed police-state lament “Scotland Yard,” which conveys a sense of dread in a culture where seemingly nothing goes unseen or unheard. Contrasted with that dim view of society, “Hemmingway,” with its dissonant sounds and odd rhythms, extends the atmosphere of uncertainty into more personal territory, focusing on issues of trust among intimates.
Indeed, dissonance is Cale’s central tool on Nookie Wood, and even he uses it to impart a sense of unease into the songs that communicate an otherworldly grace. Even a track as untethered and light as “Sandman (Flying Dutchman)” seems somehow out of phase with traditional melodic symmetry. The world Cale has created here is conflicted and weird, but it’s also fascinating. It’s a place where beauty is only a memory, where distortion and grotesquerie are ubiquitous, but where there’s still much to admire.