Thursday, June 21, 2007


I don't want to offend anyone here, but blackAcetate almost strikes me as Vintage Violence, part the second. That is, while a pleasant listen, it's strangely insubstantial for a Cale album. I won't necessarily turn it off, but I listened to it only a few days ago and simply don't recall most of it. Also, while Violence has about five songs I really enjoy, Acetate boasts only one: "Wasteland."

It starts off all ghostly and shimmering, with a single curlicue of piano, and lulls the listener into expecting something by say, Enigma. Or maybe Delerium. Something that belongs on that compilation featuring "Tubular Bells" and the "X-files" theme that I used to see hawked on television adverts. Then the rhythm track kicks in, and Cale's inimitable vocals let the listener know that Sarah MacLachlan is not going to be popping up on this one.

Cale takes the listener on a trip through a hot and cold wasteland, a place of volcanoes, dry riverbeds, missing dinosaurs, and the ghost of yesteryear. That's all there is to it, really. The chorus is as straightforward as Cale ever gets: "You comfort me/comfort me/hold me in the dark." The level of vocal intensity is static, and so is the backing track-- there is not much development here; it's a snapshot rather than a story. But the wavering curtains of synth and the evocative piano add a layer of atmosphere, and there are nice strings on the instrumental break and some interesting guitar at the end. There are woo-woo girls, yes, or rather "na na na" girls, but Cale uses such additives with more consistent success than any artist of his generation, and they don't ruin anything here. Cale's voice shows its age and wear; he's a little hoarse, and if he doesn't engage in the old histrionics, it's likely because he can't.

And that's it. So what makes "Wasteland" any good? I don't believe that all Cale is good Cale, after all. Well, I enjoy it because it is atypical Cale. Instead of something so deeply weird and idiosyncratic that it's hard to imagine anyone but Cale even doing the song, this could easily be used on a film soundtrack. This is where I again perceive a parallel to Vintage Violence: we're being treated to Cale the performer rather than Cale the performance artist. This isn't "Guts," or anything of the sort. It's impressionistic, but in a universal way; instead of genuine volcanoes out the window, it's clear Cale is living in an emotional wasteland, and enough of us have been there (or think we have) that there is a way in to the song. And the path in doesn't require a reference book.

And, this being a Cale song, I'm not convinced there is anyone actually there to hold the narrator in the dark. I think he's alone with the dead dinosaurs, and I like it that way.


Inverarity said...

I agree that blackAcetate is one of the least substantial albums of his career. But what do you think his most substantial albums are, and what do you think a "typically substantial album" would be?

I've always liked this track, but something irks me about it every time I hear it: if the soil is cold and damp and volcanoes are in sight, you're living in one of the most fertile areas on earth. Now, it could be that he's aware of this, and the condition of "wasteland" is a transitive one, one that will pass away as vegetation starts to colonize the lava flows - though if there's soil that's not likely... (I'll stop now! But that actually is an interesting metaphor for the destruction that can result from a failed relationship...)

And yet I listen to the song anyway, because I can (barely) resist my science-pedant tendencies and because the song has such a great feeling of mystery and eros. I love the "ha na na na" backing vocals - they enhance the song's feeling of vulnerability.

The vocal has a feeling of conscious restraint - he wants to be more expressive, but he shouldn't. I like that a lot.

I dunno about equating this with Vintage Violence. You can almost perceive a narrative, albeit a fractured one, in the songs. I think there's a fair chance that blackAcetate is one of his more "confessional" albums. (Then again, Walking on Locusts seems to be, too, and that doesn't help it a bit.)

Besides, you don't need a path into "Sabotage," just a finely honed sense of desperation.

Finally, he can indeed still do the histrionics, as you should remember :P

Ian said...

I long to hear when the time is right what makes Walking on Locusts so bad; I dimly remember reading a fairly positive Rolling Stone review of it as a kid. I think.

The lyrics to this one sound interesting, though, and RPI's comment on Sabotage makes me very intrigued!

Mark of the Asphodel said...

Re: substance, I'm not going to craft some list of criteria for what defines a Substantial Cale album. By 'substantial' I mean two things-- one, does it stick in the memory, for good or ill? Are there any juicy turns of phrase, or instrumental flourishes that are uniquely "Cale" to be found? Even when I didn't know the names of half the tracks on Fragments of a Rainy Season, random er... fragments would be stuck in my head. And two-- does it emotionally engage the listener? Wasteland engages me, about five or so tracks on VV engage me, and the rest... pff. I don't turn to Cale to be lightly entertained. Any random Cale album is likely to have more than one track that digs into my memory and engages my emotions, so blackAcetate comes up low on the list.