John Cale – Music for a New Society/M:FANS

A case can be made for John Cale having delivered the most richly varied catalog in the rock canon. A before/after view of his Velvet Underground tenure makes clear his role as the group’s experimental soul. After indulging his avant classical roots for a bit post-departure, Cale delivered the brilliantly pastoral Paris 1919 (at the same time he was contributing to Nick Drake’s classics, fer chrissakes), then rounded out the Seventies with an impressive parade of albums that straddled guitar rock and taut dissonance.

Cale dialed things down significantly for 1982’s austere, largely piano-based Music for a New Society. Hailed in some corners as a masterpiece, it plays to me more like a coda to an incredible run – I prefer the prior year’s Honi Soit, on my short list of the ’80s’ most overlooked records. New Society sounds like an intended grand statement that comes up a bit short – perhaps Cale agrees, because 34 years on he’s taken another run at it, packaging the remastered original with the largely re-recorded M:FANS. Reportedly he began from the original master tapes but also enlisted his present-day touring band, creating a distinct alternate version. It’s an unusual move for the 72-year old Cale, but as usual he turns it into a compelling listen.

M:FANS opens with “Prelude,” an audio collage centered on an overseas phone call featuring Cale’s mother singing him a Welsh lullaby – he removed “Prelude” from the original, fearing it was too mawkish following her death. It serves as a nice setup here for a broader re-sequencing, feeding into the mournful “If You Were Still Around” (co-written with playwright Sam Shepard!), even if Cale does complete the thought with “…I’d shake you by the knees.” The combo also signals Cale’s shift away from the anti-military rants of his previous two albums (check the brutal, punk-influenced Sabotage/Live, an outlier in his catalog) to the realm of the personal, while tackling even darker subject matter. For instance, “Thoughtless Kind” masquerades as a somber ballad while recounting the tale of a mother being escorted away by police after committing an unspecified heinous crime.

The reconstituted M:FANS fills the sonic open spaces of the original with persistent electronic hum, which also supersedes New Society’s occasionally dated keyboard effects. Cale also processes his vocals, giving them a sense of remove (and accommodating the range limitations that come with age) and adding a layer of spoken narrative in places. It makes M:FANS a more cohesive sounding album – the straight-ahead full-band workout “Changes Made” no longer sounds like a fish out of water, for example – which works as a positive or a negative depending on the song. Cale drops the cathartic chorus from “Close Watch,” New Society’s most beautiful and memorable melody, although in his defense it was his third go at the track (it originally appeared on 1975’s Helen of Troy).

Interestingly, M:FANS drops two tracks from the original article, and they happen to have been the most overwrought. Both were extensions of classical tropes (“Damn Life” was set to a backdrop of “Ode to Joy”) and were also the two collaborations with Cale’s ex-wife Rise – who narrated “Rise, Sam and Rimsky-Korsakov.” Whatever the reason, it’s addition by subtraction.

In retrospect, John Cale can be seen as something of a role model for Destroyer’s Dan Bejar – both are talented musical contrarians with a penchant for shifting course before the public’s taste catches up with them. Music for a New Society has aged surprisingly well and M:FANS is a worthy companion piece. I wouldn’t recommend either as an entry point to Cale’s superb catalog – for that I’d suggest Paris 1919 or Fear – but for the converted the pair make for a fascinating ride.

John Cale
Music for a New Society/M:FANS