John Cale Gets Redemptive and Playful on POPtical Illusion

The avant-garde songwriter and composer’s 18th studio album finds him still tricking audiences with pop songs whose lyrics hint at something much deeper and darker below the surface.

Music Reviews John Cale
John Cale Gets Redemptive and Playful on POPtical Illusion

Listening today, with decades of distance and a lifetime of music at our fingertips, it’s difficult to imagine the seismic influence of the Velvet Underground and Nico’s self-titled album in 1967. Like the audience members who came close to rioting at the Parisian premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, everyone who unpeeled Andy Warhol’s banana at the time of its release infamously went on to start a band (or so Brian Eno claimed). “Venus in Furs” is the artistic apex of the VU’s debut—the moment where John Cale’s influences from European classical composers and bleeding edge American avant-gardists seamlessly merged with Lou Reed’s streetwise poetry about sex, drugs and dominatrixes. No one before the VU had attempted to combine down and dirty rock ‘n’ roll with a droning, ritualistic viola, and nothing has sounded quite the same in the many years since.

Of course, by the time he met Reed, John Cale was already pushing boundaries as a member of the Theatre of Eternal Music (a.k.a. the Dream Syndicate). Performing with experimental composers such as John Cage, LaMonte Young and the late Marian Zazeela, the Welsh composer living in NYC added his strings to sustained notes that occasionally stretched for days on end. Cale has never looked back from this creatively formative era—bringing his avant-garde impulses to the Velvet Underground’s first two albums, early production work for Patti Smith, the Stooges and the Modern Lovers, plus his prolific, perpetually progressing solo output.

POPtical Illusion is Cale’s second new album in a year, following close to a decade of silence between 2023’s MERCY and 2016’s M:FANS (a rebooted version of his 1982 album Music for a New Society). Needless to say, it’s been a long time since we’ve heard this much new music from the old master, but he’s been writing up a storm. After becoming an octogenarian in 2022, Cale realized he had outlived many of his contemporaries and decided to document the passage of time. Writing over 80 songs with a vast range of emotions, he brought half of these compositions to collaborators such as Weyes Blood and Animal Collective, resulting in the densely packed (yet sadly dour and plodding) MERCY.

Comparing POPtical Illusion to MERCY on a purely musical level, it’s clear Cale is having a lot more fun this time. As the title implies, and as he’s always done, he’s trying to trick you with pop songs whose lyrics hint at something much deeper and darker below the surface. “Davies and Wales” is an early melodic, slinky standout, reminiscent of 1990’s Wrong Way Up, the sole collaborative album from Cale and Eno. “How We See The Light” is another piano-driven highlight, musically reminiscent of Cale’s LCD Soundsystem cover, with redemptive lyrics that flash back to a Velvet Underground song released after he got the boot in 1968.

“Shark-Shark” sounds closest to one of the Velvet Underground’s noisy rock chooglers like “Sister Ray,” and its sequencing next to “Funkball the Brewster” makes for POPtical Illusion’s strangest one-two punch. Elsewhere, Cale brings his love of forward-thinking hip-hop production to trunk-thumpers like “Edge of Reason” and “Company Commander.” POPtical Illusion doesn’t sound quite as contemporary as Kim Gordon’s 2024 rage-rap album The Collective, but it’s still a thrill to hear John Cale continue to evolve, make big swings and, occasionally, knock it out of the park. Let’s hope he writes his Lulu next.

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