Music Reviews
Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood

John Cale Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood

(Domino) Buy it from Insound Rating - 5/10

John Cale casts his nets widely.  With a career that spans avant-garde classical, proto-punk, baroque pop, and beat-based world music, among other genres, Cale has proven himself a restless artist bent on pushing himself constantly into new territory.  Not surprisingly, this approach has mixed results, though the past decade showed a return to the kind of melodicism he displayed on his early solo efforts, first on the excellent Hobosapiens and then on the solid follow up, Black Acetate.  Not satisfied to stay in one place, and increasingly inspired by the production techniques pioneered by hip hop artists, Cale has moved in a decidedly groovier direction.  Unfortunately, this often comes at the expense of his more lyrical instincts, as what’s going on in the song becomes more important than the song itself.  He also commits the cardinal sin, in this reviewers eyes, of drawing on 80s new romantic pop for inspiration.  As some readers know I have a deep and committed prejudice against most of what the 80s spewed forth, and those that disagree with me should discount my opinion here. 

The title song is indicative of the problem with the record.  A mélange of electronic effects and beats completely overwhelms a song that doesn’t really go anywhere, with musical phrases that almost seem like an afterthought.  Again and again, on Scotland Yard, on Hemingway, the material cannot stand up to the busy arrangements and end up buried.  Then, an already troubled situation gets worse when Cale starts playing with autotune on December Rains.  I still fail to see the value of this pointless gimmick, which reminds me of those moronic robots from the disastrous film version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, who represented a pathetic trend towards robot appearances on pop singles circa 1978.  Cale sees something more in it and uses it several times, with predictable results. 

There are some strong moments here as well.  The opener, I Wanna Talk 2 U, incorporates the groovy production, complete with wah-wah-ed guitars, to positive effect, due mainly to a strong hook.  The album closes strongly too.  Living With You is an exceptionally strong song that stands up to the layers of synths and guitars embellishing it.  And Sandman (Flying Dutchman) creates a gentle, dream-like vibe, in the way that 10cc did with a thousand overdubs on I’m Not In Love.  Unfortunately these are the exceptions rather than the rule. 

John Cale is an artist I admire greatly and I appreciate his constant exploration and reinvention.  At the end of the day it comes down, as it always does, to songs.  If you’re gonna rap like Snoop, maybe it doesn’t really matter, but if you’re still dabbling in verse/chorus song structures then the traditional rules still apply.  Too often the way of the beat ends up a distraction rather than a fully incorporated addition to good songwriting.  Cale has shown his ability to do this effectively in recent years.  This time the beats got the best of him.