Matthew Friedberger (the Fiery Furnaces) Talks John Cale’s Shifty

Please don't get the wrong idea; this is a rave review. But the end of my second sentence is: the bad taste of a great artist is a tremendous...

Please don’t get the wrong idea; this is a rave review. But the end of my second sentence is: the bad taste of a great artist is a tremendous opportunity.

For instance. In David Remnick’s fascinating, appropriately unilluminating, seriously misconceived recent profile of Bruce Springsteen in the New Yorker, we learn that the unexceptionally unfortunate but nonetheless disastrously mis-emphasized drum sounds on “We Take Care of Our Own” were not a matter of mere oversight. They were not, say, a byproduct of the rush to communicate; the need the great man felt, perhaps, to rush the song out this campaign summer, where and when it might counteract, to some degree, but wouldn’t that be wonderful, the hours and hours of Nashville product, and not only that, the central message of which is “It’s your misfortune and none of my own.” The finer points of snare drum processing be damned; and, if not good riddance, well… No. Not at all. We discover that, to our great benefit, earlier intentions notwithstanding, Springsteen went to significant lengths in an attempt to replicate this drum sound in renditions of the number live to the attentive (and not at all politically homogenous, in this country at least) thousands. Shockingly: he conceived, if only momentarily, of this drum sound as integral to the song. It is shocking. So: the apparent bad taste of the great artist transforms an insignificant, everyday detail into a fathomless mystery.

Why the hell would he value that sound? What can that possibly mean? Now we have a problem, now we are discomfited, and thank God. Or, in this case, thank Springsteen. And, annoyed or assumed, we listen to the detail differently; or rather: the sound (in this case) changes, and as if on its own. (Self-consciousness as to one’s applied attention gives way as it is successfully applied.) And we are changed with it.

I don’t imagine you think I might be exaggerating the transformative power of bad, or “bad,” drum sounds. One of the great tragedies of recent American cultural history has been the replacement, in country music, of actual country drumming with ’80s-derived “rock” drum playing and sounds. I suppose Mutt Lange had a lot to do with this, but I am no expert.  However: instead of “tragedies” in the sentence before last, might I have typed  “opportunities”? But rightly or wrongly, I don’t value, I’m not interested in, the decisions of (maybe) Mutt Lange: and so I pass by the opportunity such disgraceful degradation (see? doesn’t that sound interesting?) presents.

Again: it is the apparent bad taste of the great artist which can prove to be so rich to those, say, caught in the circle of his or her (the artist’s, I mean) interventions. I wouldn’t normally put it that way.

But whose difficulty demands our attention? Whose bad decisions are we required to puzzle out, and see, or hear, in this case, differently? Celebrity, of all sorts and sizes, can solve this for us; the weight of promotional expenditure and its corresponding activation of media, social and anti-social, networks makes expressions about cream rising and talent so…sophisticated.

There is a phrase in an old German book: “reputedly popular.” The implication being: since popularity is a matter of opinion, though it can be verified easily enough, the verification of its verification cannot. Feelings change. And if they do, were they really what they were? I guess I never really loved him or her, people say, when things go too wrong or too right. One often thinks the subject is fooling, maybe to good effect, him- or herself when they say that: but is that so? Feelings change even when they don’t seem to. (In other words, when the situation changes, and it certainly does, the feelings have to change just to stay the same.) One doesn’t know what or whose “circle” one is, temporarily, caught in. Time doesn’t stand still, after all. The notion of a process has more weight than the however minute and accurate description of a snapshot.

Again with the circles. If the arts of the last 50 years, then, could be said to have central figures — and they can’t, they’re to be talked about (not strictly but rather… permissively) in terms of ((only apparently) non-adjacent) peripheries, and shifting ground, aftershocks, phantom or otherwise, that turn high roads into low roads and back again, and always already (in other words, in as evidently confused a fashion as this not-quite-parenthetical-remark) — then John Cale would certainly be, if not preeminent amongst such a (non-existent) assembly, then assuredly co-equal.

Why? Isn’t it obvious? If he was not the initiator himself, as no one person was, of the “Copernican Turn” that inaugurated, once and for all of us, whether we like it our not, our so-called Contemporary era: well, he was very much there, and he was very much active. (I mean before the Velvet Underground. That is certainly the legend, isn’t it? And the legend grows…)

But before going on, a word about John Cale’s singing. Excuse the vulgarity, but as a woman once said to me about her girlfriend’s ass: it’s magnificent. To mention one aspect: its performance of a certain immobility.

His ability to sing, somehow and somewhat aggressively, “rock” without any rock affect is especially singular, and especially valuable. Arrogance and vulnerability can be projected simultaneously, and are. This gives his singer-songwriter records — if one can characterize them that way, and Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood would be amongst them — their unparalleled depth. I mean to say: their definite superiority. Think of his peers; or not his peers, as he is plainly peerless: at least those with whom he continues to overlap. Think of the hysterical gyrations of accent and timbre Springsteen felt the need to attempt in order to put his songs over; of course, his songs needed nothing of the sort, as he must have known; he needed to do that to put himself over. (And why in God’s name did he decide that? The productive problems multiply…)

The problems Cale might present, therefore — one might be required to attempt to solve them, then. As they didn’t say where I went to school, there is no right answer: but still.

Cale seems determined to interact with contemporary rock production, with the sounds, arrangement habits, and computer programs which might mark a track as contemporary, and which are not merely added to a given composition but instead fully constitute it.  Of course, there is no such thing as any standards to subvert to some end: there are only other people’s insufficiently over-determined decisions or non-decisions. (Of course, depending on your purpose or interest, they are only seemingly insufficient…)

Now, I have droned on a long time about whatever: but the issue with this record, for me, is as follows. At every single moment of the entire goddamn thing, one gets to ask oneself, is he quoting, so to speak, that sound, or is he using it? And what would the difference mean? To pick a more obvious example: the vocal of “December Rains” and its Vocoder (Excuse me if it is achieved some other way; I will not call that sort of sound “Autotune” or “Autotuned.”)  Of course, that entire track is a complete mystery to me: “You can talk us down-down-down-dow-do-d” as the delay goes from left to right. I am out of my depth. In general: what is meant to be immediately effective, what is meant to be “second degree” or dramatically effective, what is meant to be funny-weird, what is meant to be funny-ha-ha; who is the main character in the song, whoever or whatever the singer is going on about, or the kick sound — and when does the delay rate on the arpeggiated bit become the, as it were, protagonist? And how do all of those, falsely or not, imputed permutations interact? One can go on and on.

This is my experience of listening to this record. Or is it? One can be conscious of this sort of puzzling out, or not.  But if one wonders about what decision, meant or felt, means or makes one feel, one starts taking decisions oneself. This is the effect of the “mischievous” method Cale alludes to in the press materials for the record. I wouldn’t characterize it as mischievous, however: I’d just say it’s alive as opposed to dead. Or simply musical, and especially when the sounds or notes are at their crudest and apparently least interesting. What more can you ask for? This record is exemplary.

To end, I would just like to mention that guitarist Dustin Boyer and drummer Michael Jerome are easily two of the finest rock musicians in the world.  Not that one can tell from this record.  But please keep that in mind as you listen.

Talkhouse Contributing Writer Matthew Friedberger, a Chicagoan born in 1972, is unemployed. He has no degrees or credentials of any kind.  He is, therefore and however, a songwriter and composer and has released 10 solo records in the last two years. His next work, Again with the Greatest Hits Live in the Studio, will appear shortly. He lives in France.