Monday, September 3, 2007

Burned Out Affair

Outtakes are funny things. Some are stunning works that equal or surpass anything the artist was releasing during that period (Bob Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell”). Some are rank, embarrassing artifacts that only an obsessive completist could stand to hear more than once (Pink Floyd’s “The Doctor”). But most outtakes land in a grey area between the gem pile and the refuse heap. They can be interesting demos that might have benefited from better production, or needed a lyrical retouch to really work. Or they’re transitional pieces, the seedbeds for later, better-known works. And they can even be perfectly decent completed songs that didn’t really fit anywhere at the time.

Cale’s outtakes fall in all possible categories, and I’ll argue that “Burned Out Affair” lands squarely in the last one. The major outtake from Paris 1919 is easily the most interesting bonus included on the reissued album-- much more so than yet another version of “Antarctica Starts Here.” With a title like “Burned Out Affair,” the listener expects a jaded slice of Cale-life, possibly a pastiche on a theme of Graham Greene (but not “Graham Greene”).

“Everything was fine/ when all the girls were boys/ and singing/ was the usual thing to do.”

Yes, kids, listen up while Uncle Cale tells you about the good old days. Cale sings of juvenile burning and looting over a lazy pastoral. The music shuffles along, and while it has the prominent slide guitar of the Paris 1919 sound, the arrangement doesn’t cut deep in the manner of the authentic Paris tracks. It’s the missing sonic link between Vintage Violence and Paris 1919 (and here I thought the missing link was “Gideon’s Bible”).

Not that anything about the song feels unfinished. Structurally complete and featuring a nicely mirrored lyric, “Burned Out Affair” tells a proper little tale. The central strand of the lyrics is the same thread that runs through the phantom streets of Paris-- loss-- but the overall treatment is more in the lighthearted manner of VV. Cale’s fading memories of pilfered magazines don’t tap into the same vein of menace that leaks through the evocations of childhood in “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” Growing up’s a bit sad, yes, but what can one do? We don’t cry over Cale’s spilled milk and childishness, and he doesn’t seem to be inviting us to. Maybe something sinister is going on with the clumsy-eyed rats, but nothing in the song entices one to dig beneath the surface. Unlike the great tracks from this era, the images don’t wrap around the brain. “Ghost Story” may truly haunt you for the rest of your life, but this burned-out affair might just get caught in your mind occasionally.

So, there it is-- interesting, listenable, pleasant but not really essential. Rather like most of Vintage Violence, really. Though the image of tin boys and young girls, melting away, seems an oblique reference to Andersen’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier.” I can’t imagine where Cale was going with that, and I’ll leave it to the steadfast Cale blogger Inverarity to ponder it further.


Inverarity said...

It was exciting to hear an unreleased track from these sessions, though I hadn't expected much. Despite the very loose playing and a practice-quality vocal, it's worth hearing. I agree that it feels like an authentic "missing link" between Vintage Violence and Paris 1919 - I don't think that this came up in our conversations, and it's a keen insight.

I disagree, though, that it feels complete. The lyrics are very rickety - they bulge here and there, and the unconfident vocal testifies that Cale wasn't really sure about them either. The arrangement shows little of the care that the rest of the songs received - it feels as ramshackle as everything else. I think this was only run through a few times at most before they decided not to record it properly.

I don't think I'd care much for the song without the truly excellent chorus. The lyric may not look too promising - "I can't bring back / I can't think back / It's fading again / The tin boys and young girls / All fading away" - but the fine melody shines through Cale's tonally-challenged vocal.

The Hans Christian Andersen connection is undeniable, but I think it's only meaningful in its reference to childhood. Like "A Child's Christmas in Wales," the song seems to be a very oblique personal reminiscence of growing up in Wales. I like the idea of childhood acquaintances melting away like toys. I'm not sure what's up with the gender switchery, though.

I think this song pairs well with "Empty Bottles", the very early Cale solo song he did with Lou Reed and Nico in 1972 and then gave to Jennifer Warnes. It's got the same feeling of disgusted nostalgia and helplessness.

Re Graham Greene: "Burned Out Affair" seems to be a portmanteau combining the GG novels "A Burnt-Out Case" and "The End of the Affair".

Inverarity said...

Then again, this could also be an obfuscated Velvet Underground reminiscence. Not many Cale songs offer that possibility.