Aside from one time when I listened to a Velvet Underground album (and I don’t remember which one), I have no experience with the music of John Cale. This is not a badge of honor for me, necessarily, nor is it intended as any kind of qualitative statement regarding the Velvets or Cale’s solo career. I simply haven’t been drawn to them, either by volition or circumstance, until now. Well, except for Wrong Way Up, the record he made with Eno in 1990, but I really have no idea how much Cale had to do with those songs.
First impressions? Black Acetate isn’t as weird as I thought it would be. Cale is supposed to be some kind of experimental rock guru or something, and these songs are pretty high on the quirk factor, I guess, but I was expecting transmissions from Pluto. The relative normalcy of Cale’s muse is both a relief and a letdown. As a whole, it’s just a sort of pleasantly eclectic mixed bag.
I guess “pleasant” is the operative word. These are good songs, yeah, and maybe Cale’s longtime fans will really dig them. I doubt anything here will garner him more of an audience, though, and I think that makes Acetate sort of a puzzling little album. Not that Cale needs to be worrying about sales at this point, I guess, but is he really enough of a prestige artist that EMI needs to invest in this?
I’m not saying that Black Acetate shouldn’t have come out, or that John Cale doesn’t deserve to have a recording career. Quite the contrary. But these days, we seem to expect most albums to serve a purpose; they either advance the artistry of the artist in question, or they at least pretend to make some kind of statement. This is particularly true for the greybeards: Even Mick Jagger’s awful Goddess in the Doorway was supposed to “mean” something. Cale does neither here. In fact, as the album’s press release points out, “he credits inspiration from Dr. Dre, Pharrell (of the Neptunes), Erykah Badu, Gorillaz, Doves, Curtis Mayfield and Beyond.”
That quote says more about the overall sound and feel of the album than anything I could say, actually. It’s perfect, and it explains why portions of Acetate sound sort of like the pleasantly addled musings of someone’s hip-hop grandpa. Don’t go in expecting The Chronic 1919 or anything, but the influences are there. But on the other hand, coming from an artist who’s always been more influential than commercially successful, isn’t this type of tribute a little troubling?