Out There

Pop goes the meaning
Walking on Locusts
John Cale
Hannibal Records

Be advised that you and John Cale might use certain words with entirely different things in mind: Because Walking on Locusts isn't French film soundtrack, a live album, or a partially realized collaboration with singer-songwriter Bob Neuwirth, you could say, as his press does, that this is Cale's first "pop" album in quite a while; even if you were able to say that, however, you'd be hard-pressed to think of the tennis shoe commercial that could use the dour "Some Friends" as the theme song for a new "pump-up laces" campaign--perhaps the best test of a true "pop" song.

Cale's aggressive sense of reality--of almost reveling in life's ugly details--meets you head-on in the form of the CD booklet's brutally straightforward head shots of him as Rondo Hatton in a bad toupee. That sense persists through the decidedly dreamy sigh of violins, other strings, and the glissando dip of slide and pedal steel guitars. It's an elegiac lilting reminiscent of his earliest post-Velvets efforts--like 1970's almost Moodieslike "Big White Cloud"--married to the pop sensibility of older songs like "Child's Christmas in Wales."

The arrangements show his classical side, and he's still plugging into old themes of menace and intrigue: On "Dancing Undercover," he invokes a world that is equal parts border-town intrigue and a tale told in the amorphous approximate-speak of covert ops. The mission seems vague, but the vibe does not.

There still are spikes of madness, though--on "Crazy Egypt," Cale tells off an indulgent and possibly insane associate/lover (a screed punctuated by the backup singers' chorus cries of "Craaa-aa-zeee!!") with a thoroughness that betrays more than mere fascination. On "Tell Me Why" he sets up the same tension by juxtaposing a series of soothing platitudes (with every bit of the easy universality that suggests propaganda) with the question of the title--"why's there a savior?"--delivered with a bellow and full-choir backup that mocks the assurance of old religious bromides. Even on the outro chorus--"taking it to higher ground"--it's impossible to tell promise from premise.

It's a tension Cale is again happy to leave us with, and a doubt that persists despite the relatively upbeat-sounding album closer, "Entre Nous," which maintains a thin, hopeful optimism that reminds the listener of the Talking Heads' "Guess This Must be the Place (Naive Melody)," no surprise since David Byrne appears on this album in several significant spots.

--Matt Weitz

 
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