Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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John Cale

  • Vintage Violence [Columbia, 1970] C+
  • The Academy in Peril [Reprise, 1972] B
  • Paris 1919 [Reprise, 1973] B+
  • Fear [Island, 1974] A-
  • Slow Dazzle [Island, 1975] A-
  • Guts [Island, 1977] A
  • Sabotage/Live [Spy/I.R.S., 1979] B
  • Honi Soit [A&M, 1981] B+
  • Walking on Locusts [Hannibal, 1996] Dud

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Vintage Violence [Columbia, 1970]
Enigmatic lyrics had better not be attached to enigmatic melodies or nobody'll bother figuring out answers. All I want to know is: is "The journey did her well" ungrammatical, or just Welsh? C+

The Academy in Peril [Reprise, 1972]
There must be more straightforward ways of imperiling the academy than mock-classical mock-soundtracks. Granted, this sounds jake to me, and my continental friends tell me it's excellent of its sort. But I don't much care for the continent (or the sort)--that's why I had to ask them. Rock and roll: "The Philosopher," for acoustic guitar, brass, woodwinds, and (eventually) violins over strange percussion, and "Days of Steam," which reminds me of the Ernie Kovacs theme. B

Paris 1919 [Reprise, 1973]
In which Cale subsumes Little Feat, the academy in stasis, and other subversive elements into a form known generically (don't tell anyone) as schlock-rock. Winsome stuff it is, too--delectable melodies, dulcet singing, and such civilized rhymes as "Andalucia" and "see ya." But when you try to get past the surface pleasure of phrases like "claim you with my iron drum" and "cows that agriculture won't allow" you realize that poets who emulate Edward Lear had better be funny about it--or else stick with Delmore Schwartz. B+

Fear [Island, 1974]
With Phil Manzanera flailing his axe like rocksy music was a thing of the future and Eno doing his best Baby Cortez imitation it sounds as if somebody just played "Sister Ray" for Cale and he thought the world of it. Manzanera's feedback extravaganza on "Gun" is a landmark of six-string aleatoric, and on "The Man Who Couldn't Afford to Orgy" the entire ensemble comes up with the perfect sleazy-slick background rock for the glass-table scene in a porn flick. Concept: see title. A-

Slow Dazzle [Island, 1975]
In which Cale integrates his unsingerly voice into a full-fledged rock style--kind of heavy, kind of schlocky, but done with humor and perversely appealing in its straightness. "Darling I Love You" is a tribute to his darling, "Ski Patrol" is a tribute to his ski patrol, and on "Mr. Wilson" the Velvets meet the Beach Boys for discreet, sophisticated adult enjoyment. I should also mention that the man can really scream, and (a related fact) that his version of "Heartbreak Hotel" does not make me miss Elvis. A-

Guts [Island, 1977]
This is how Island makes up for withholding U.S. release on Helen of Troy, and I think we're better off. As a whole, Helen of Troy is sodden and stylized, and while "Pablo Picasso" and "Leaving It All Up to You" are Cale at his mad best, "Mary Lou" and "Helen of Troy" itself almost drag this compilation down. They don't, though. Cale's Island music epitomizes the cold, committed dementia of the best English rock, and side two--comprising "Fear Is a Man's Best Friend," "Gun," "Dirtyass Rock 'n' Roll," and "Heartbreak Hotel"--is a hard-sell advert for the disease. A

Sabotage/Live [Spy/I.R.S., 1979]
"Military intelligence isn't what it used to be," Cale intones on a title cut replete with slash and yowl. "So what--human intelligence isn't what it used to be either." Speak for yourself, John. This material, based in part on Cale's recent inquiries into foreign affairs, is fairly strong in a geocynical way that's a lot newer to rock than it is to human discourse in general. But the live recording, while no doubt economical, gets more flash than slash out of Marc Aaron's guitar and not enough singing out of Cale. And "Captain Hook," the dumbest song on the record, lasts 11:26. B

Honi Soit [A&M, 1981]
After a mere eight months of diligent listening I've concluded that Cale's fans were right--his songwriting has regained its adroitness. And after a mere eight minutes of random thought I've concluded that I was right too--his singing hasn't. B+

Walking on Locusts [Hannibal, 1996] Dud

Further Notes:

Distinctions Not Cost-Effective [1980s]: Provided more proof that he'd studied at Juilliard. Subcontracted his lyrics to a Dylanologist.