Saturday, March 22, 2008

Praetorian Underground

Sometimes really goony lyrical ideas can work out well. It takes the right combination of performance, composition, and (regrettably) a sense of the author to do it. Pete Townshend circa 1969 could do it; circa 2006, not so much. Thom Yorke's bizarre spiky creepy obsession songs lately ("I Froze Up", "Skip Divided", "All I Need") would be much less tolerable if I didn't have such regard for his usual "literate bus-station psycho" modus operandi. And Neil Young can toss outright stinkbombs ("I'm an Aerostar, I'm a Cutlass Supreme / in the wrong lane, tryin' to turn against the flow") into his grandest songs and make them the most appealing phrase. I don't know how much of it is just preserving the suspension of disbelief and how much is really alchemy.

So I guess what I'm saying is that you can spot the James Dean forgeries by their uncertain ways. Er, well, that's what John Cale was saying in "Praetorian Underground." It's a really thoroughly goony idea for a song. It involves a dystopian government regulating music, which (shades of Republic!) corrupts the heart of man. It also imagines a generation of musical pretenders, pretending to be edgy and not having the heart of boiling magma that a real artist has. And it connects the figurative heart of magma to the literal explosion of Krakatoa in 1883, which Cale seems to think kicked off the revolution in music that led to, well, him.

The silliness of this idea is tough to redeem, but somehow the song appeals to me. It's one of the mediocrities that keep Caribbean Sunset from any sort of essential status, but like much of the album it's curiously addictive. It's got familiar Cale tropes without the substance, it has an overly impassioned vocal performance, and appealing (in this case, frenetic) if unimaginative music. It's junk food, and, dammit, I do like it. Sing it with me now: A forgery will always let you dooooooown!

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