In contrast to the jaundiced punk truculence of Sabotage/Live (1979) or Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1986), Fragments gives us Cale at..." />
 

JOHN CALE

 

Fragments of a Rainy Season is the the first live John Cale album to feature him performing solo and "unplugged" – before that term became a mid-'90s buzzword.


In contrast to the jaundiced punk truculence of Sabotage/Live (1979) or Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1986), Fragments gives us Cale at his most melodic and moving, a mellowed and certainly a soberer man in a Yamamoto jacket and a lopsided haircut running through a selection of his prettiest songs.


It's a Cale many of us love deeply, a man alone at a concert-hall Steinway revisiting the pop-rock of 'Paris 1919' and 'A Child's Christmas in Wales', as wistful and whimsical as any '70s singer-songwriter holding court at L.A.'s Troubadour club. It's the Cale who disavowed the spiky nihilism and decadence of the Velvets, inspired instead by melodicism of Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson (to whom he'd paid haunting homage on Slow Dazzle's brilliant Beach Boys pastiche 'Mr. Wilson'). It's the Cale who improbably took a staff job at Warner-Reprise in L.A. and – for an all-too-brief moment – became part of the Burbank producers' mafia alongside Lenny Waronker and his laid-back chums. (Lest we forget, 1973's Paris 1919 featured members of Little Feat and the Crusaders among the backing musicians.)


We can also hear this Cale, significantly, on the adaptations of three Dylan Thomas poems recorded on 1989's Eno-produced Words for the Dying. Cale's compatriot had inspired 'A Child Christmas in Wales', and on Fragments – stripped of their original orchestrations – we get deeply affecting performances of 'On a Wedding Anniversary', 'Lie Still, Sleep Becalmed' and the famous 'Do Not Go Gentle.’ The material is perfect for Cale, who's never been a rock singer and who always sounded like some heavy-browed poet who's unexpectedly broken into song.


Fragments additionally gives us one of Cale's most enduring heartbreakers, the deceptively conventional '(I Keep a) Close Watch'. On 1975's Helen of Troy it's string-saturated and sub-Jimmy-Webb; on 1982's harrowing Music for a New Society it's a ballad stripped back to elemental woe. From Cale's 1974 Island debut Fear come the disarming singalong of the gleefully paranoid title track and the languid "European vision of the Old West" – as he introduces it here – that is 'Buffalo Ballet'.


Arguably the emotional high point of this album is 'Dying on the Vine', written in the mid-'80s with author/journalist Larry "Ratso" Sloman. Where the original on Artificial Intelligence is strained and rhythmically clunky, the version from the Brussels show that produced Fragments is a song of almost unbearable tenderness. Here is the tormented Welshman at large in his adopted America, "living my life like a Hollywood" while dying (in a play on L.A. street names) on the Vine of alcoholism – and picturing his mother back in the South Wales village where she'd raised him.


No less tender is 'Style It Takes' from Songs for Drella, the surprisingly touching album about Velvet Underground mentor Andy Warhol that Cale had written with his old accomplice/adversary Lou Reed after the artist's death in 1987. One of the five Drella songs on which he took the lead vocal, 'Style' is very much a solo Cale piece in the 'Close Watch' vein, a personal tribute to the strange and sexless Pop Artist who'd given the Welshman such an important break. Always an awkward fish out of water in the amoral milieu of Warhol's New York, Cale was nonetheless forever branded by the experience of knowing and working with him – to the extent that on 'Style' he even affects an imitation of Andy's fey, emotionless speaking voice as he prepares to shoot one of his 16mm films. What one hears above all in the piece is Cale's compassion for this loneliest of artistic mentors.


Cale being Cale, Fragments isn't all rueful tenderness. The deceptively jaunty 'Darling I Need You' is flippantly introduced as a song about "religious awakening in the southern part of the United States", while Elvis' 'Heartbreak Hotel' is no less gothic in the solo version here than it is in the Grand Guignol horror show of the original on Slow Dazzle. 'Guts' is as close as Cale ever came to Lou Reed at his most withering.


It's easy to forget that – years before Jeff Buckley and The X-Factor – he was the first artist to recognize the hymnal majesty of Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah', or that it was his original 1991 reading of the song that popped up on the soundtrack of Shrek.


So there you have it: an album that reminds us what a tuneful bugger Cale be when he surrenders to his best melodic instincts and risks the vulnerability of honest emotion. "It will be rain tonight," the sleeve note quotes Shakespeare's Banquo from Macbeth. "Let it come down," replies one of the men who are about to murder him.


On Fragments of a Rainy Season – fragments of pain from a long and sometimes mystifying career – the rain comes down in buckets.