Thursday, May 1, 2008

Taking Your Life in Your Hands

What a sound to hear when you put on a John Cale record. Some kind of electric organ, synthesizer stuff. Graceful, arcing, legato stuff. The music seems bashful, tender, maybe a little ashamed to be there. The bass figure that speaks up about a minute in sounds like it really has something to apologize for. Maybe Cale means this "New Society" thing? Maybe after the derangement of Sabotage, the further derangement of Honi Soit, the years of being off the rails, Cale is mellowing?

Except his voice isn't very warm. He's singing about children and their mother, and blue men in uniform, and tears in her eyes. That guitar stab isn't very warm or comforting. Dear me, he's back to his Riverbank vocal mode. And now it's the chorus. Hm, the title is taken from the chorus. "The children will always be there"? What's that supposed to mean. And now it's

Cancel the day, cancel the night.
Can't sell the day, can't sell the night.
'Cause who would be watching
when she steals and runs away
full of hysterical laughter to say
Mama, mama, I've left school today

So. "Taking Your Life in Your Hands" ushers in Music for a New Society, an anti-lullaby to open a rather nightmarish (but quiet!) album. It exhibits a main flaw of Cale's early-80s oeuvre: sloppy first-take-grade lyrics. But they sort of work here... "blue men in uniform" doesn't mean "men in blue uniforms," but it subtly exposes the fractures in the narration. Similarly, "I hope I get to see you in that funny school far away," a dull dead set of words as a lyric, does sort of convey that the perspective character is a young girl.

I seem to recall Cale saying that he didn't know what the song was about, specifically; that he liked the superposition of possible meanings just fine. There's the mentally-ill mother, the mentally-ill child; the runaway from a broken home; the suicide, the filicide, the spouse-murderer; and the interpretations go on. I like the ambiguity just fine; I pick a different one almost every time I listen, or just let my critical response drift among them. It's not the lyrics that make the song, or the music; it's how they interact. I can't weigh it or judge it, just feel it.

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