By Hayley Scott
It’s been forty-seven years since John Cale co-founded The Velvet Underground; forty seven years on and fifteen solo albums later, Cale has tried it all. It’s quite admirable, then, that Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood shows no jaded signs of apathy and is just as adventurous and diverse as all of his previous endeavours.
That’s not to say that this album is without its faults, however. As with any experimentalist, there’s always going to be room for failed attempts, and Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood has a seemingly trial-and-error approach. This is an album that is testimony to Cale’s avant-garde tendencies, and stays true to his adventurous ethos that was so pivotal in the spirit of the Velvet Underground; but it is also probably one of his most miscellaneous to date, with all 12 tracks being audacious trials in largely mismatched genres.
Shifty opens with ‘I Wanna Talk 2 U’: a collaborative effort with Danger Mouse that presents a shift from Cale’s customary sombre delivery by opting for reverberated auto-tuned vocals. This along with the coalescence of rattling post-punk guitar, ’80s style synth inclusions and subtle hints of funk is a recurring theme within the first half of the album. On ‘Scotland Yard’ there is a distinctly industrial feel where Cale’s vocals are typically ominous and baritone. This introduces quite a gothic element to an otherwise up-beat, dare I say, poppy affair.
Towards the latter half Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood decreases its pace by delving into a familiar realm that is perhaps more intriguing than its former half. Cale’s genius is a little more exposed on ’Living With You’ and ’Sandman’, both of which contain his experimentalist behaviour at its best, without having to resort to overly ambitious ideas of innovation. This is the catalyst for a contrast that sees the record navigating a path between energetic and atmospheric. ‘Vampire Café’ is a markedly stand-out track because of the trembling bass beats that converge in the background under his subdued, muffled vocals, giving it a welcomed haunting quality.
Despite the obvious contradictions on the album, the emphasis on distorted vocals remains a permanent fixture throughout, with the auto-tune being considerably cranked up on ‘Hemmingway’ and the use of a vocoder being particularly lucid on ‘December Rains’ and ‘Mothra’, making both tracks rather futuristic, atypical versions of Cale’s trademark style. There is also a distinct lack of organic instrumental presence on Shifty, with even the slightest hint of acoustic guitar on ‘Living With You’ sounding robotic.
It’s difficult to suggest that this is an innovative or cutting edge effort from John Cale, because it’s not. It is, however, an impressive product from a legendary connoisseur of avant-garde still trying his hand at something fresh and exciting, without giving up and going down the accessibly easy route.