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Still active at eighty years old, John Cale – co-founder of the Velvet Underground, producer to the stars who want to think outside the box, and, of course, long-running solo artiste – is proof that living legends still walk among us. But that doesn’t mean they’ve calcified into a static state, ready for the pedestal we like to put them on so they can be admired more than appreciated. On Mercy, his first solo LP in seven years (or first one of all-original music in eleven, if you prefer), Cale brings his classical training and avant-garde sense of pop music into the 2020s, collaborating with younger artists and generally making it clear he’s paying attention to modern music without jumping on trends.
Adopting rhythms from hip-hop and EDM, then subsuming them into lush atmospherics and ghostly melodies, “Story of Blood” (co-starring Weyes Blood) tells the tale: smoky synths that undulate through the air, quite yet percolating electronic rhythms, enigmatic lyrics, and Cale’s beautiful baritone – seemingly unaltered in the slightest by age – fuse into a gorgeous, phantasmic malaise in which it’s easy to lose yourself. On “The Legal Status of Ice,” Cale incorporates a stentorian vocal style and the anarchic Fat White Family into its droning electro pop. Floating like waves just before a storm, “Everlasting Days” brings in Animal Collective to sing rounds like birds in a strong wind. Recorded without star assistance, “Night Crawling” fields one of the record’s most prominent rhythms and strongest melodies, while “Moonstruck (Nico’s song)” pays tribute to Cale’s fallen Velvets bandmate with the kind of stylish ethereality the singer herself enjoyed during her days with Cale as producer.
Mercy is a gorgeous album that showcases Cale’s desire to express himself in ways that don’t necessarily hearken back to the most familiar beats of his creativity, yet still sound ineffably, undeniably, like him.