Brian Eno and John Cale

Wrong Way Up (Warner Bros 1990)

It took quite a long time for me to appreciate this one. It’s the most middlebrow, mature and accessible release by either gentleman and those three adjectives weren’t exactly the most endearing to me when I initially immersed myself in their respective discographies long ago.  I foolishly looked at the 1990 release date and the garish cover art and never gave Wrong Way Up its due since it sounded a bit slick and lacking in the drifting stasis of 70s Eno or the unsettling, orchestral gravitas of Cale’s early string of solo albums. I wanted them to be obtuse and challenging, but that was my shortcoming because these two brilliant musicians had mellowed and now traveled along a different pathway than those that inspired their colorful origin. This was their attempt at a pop album and I now see the beauty and mastery that lurked behind its superficially slick sheen.

Wrong Way Up opens with the familiar strain of Cale’s viola playing on “Lay My Love” as Eno croons a cosmic yarn about the inherent power of love to transcend time and space. It’s a sentimentally hippie sentiment couched in cyberpunk imagery and its somehow touching despite the revulsion I feel at tying those two disparate genres together in one untidy knot. It’s a perfect synthesis of their musical outlooks as Cale’s viola lends it a stately grace to counteract the clunky electro-pop of Eno. It’s kind of like the pop songs on Another Green World with an orchestral bent. That’s a quite a combo in my book.

“One Word” was the commercially released single from Wrong Way Up and there is no way in hell that it ever had a chance at the top 40. My snarky cynicism isn’t due to poor quality control, but because it is way too bright, witty and impressionistic to ever capture the imagination of the dullards of our imperfect universe. This song is like a microcosm of the album as the two men trade stanzas establishing competing viewpoints as one argues for the power of words to derail any sense of camaraderie in this combative world while the other paints an idealistic picture of a world where words have the power to unite us all under the same banner. For some reason, this setting for this existential debate skips from the Louvre to Cologne and drops allusions to oil paintings by Welsh painter Augustus John, but these idiosyncrasies are what make this such a lovably unlikely stab at commercialism. It’s just another reason why I believe Wrong Way Up belongs in the same discussion as Cale and Eno’s accepted classics when you take a long listen to it and pay attention to the little eccentricities that define it.

“Empty Frame” is a head scratcher in the best possible way as Eno tries his hand at melding his 70s pop aesthetic to 50s pop music as the song rises and falls on a wave of “whoa, whoa whoas” like he’s aiming for some stoned, avant-garde take on “Runaround Sue.”  It sounds so uplifting, but listen closely and the song is really about a crew of unwitting sailors headed towards their demise by a clueless captain as they are slowly driven insane looking for signs of safety and survival. It’s a saccharine sweet tune laced with a tale full of arsenic. Again, these contradictions and literary flourishes are the lifeblood of Wrong Way Up and explain why a cursory listen is destined to obscure the brilliance that lies under its surface.

What would an album full of contradictions and idiosyncrasies be without a oddball honky-tonk number by John Cale?  “Crime in the Desert” tackles familiar country and western themes of women in love with broken hearted souls, tumbling dice and murder in the murky moonlight. However, Cale’s rollicking piano playing is juxtaposed over Eno’s enthusiastic bleeps and it somehow takes on a post-modern flair of its very own. It’s a bizarre, yet infectious twist on Americana that tweaks familiar themes and makes it into something wholly unique that could only be created by these two weathered crackpots.

Don’t make the same mistake I did. Just because it is rarely mentioned in the same hallowed breath as Paris 1919 or Here Come the Warm Jets doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pour yourself a glass of wine and get very familiar with Wrong Way Up. It is the most poetic and literary effort by both men and boasts some of their best lyrical work. Yes, the production kind of mucks things up a bit when you approach it as a backseat listener, but Wrong Way Up is the sound of two geniuses navigating their way through their middle ages and pondering love, life and mortality in their own peculiar way.

John Cale

Music For a New Society (Rhino 1982)

This an album for days when you just feel unable to get out of bed and life has yanked your hair as a prelude to kneeing you in the balls. Music For a New Society is John Cale’s last great album before a parade of underwhelming efforts. Although his live album, Fragments of a Rainy Season, is one of his best, everything after this paled in comparison to the brilliance and creativity of his 70s works. Of all the members of the Velvet Underground, John Cale is the one who is responsible for the most challenging and interesting work after their slow, pathetic dissolution. To hell with Metal Machine Music, Cale’s Paris 1919, Vintage Violence, Church of Anthrax, Fear, Slow Dazzle, Academy in Peril, Helen of Troy and Music For a New Society are sometimes nasty and claustrophobic and sometimes lush and sentimental, but always worth your full attention. There is no excusing such dreck as Artificial Intelligence and Caribbean Sunset, but Cale’s decade of genius is enough to last me for an eternity.

Enough proselytising, let’s get back to the matter at hand. Music For a new Society is Cale’s most sparse and single-minded record as it is just Cale’s voice, piano, minimal percussion, eerie electronics and the occasional bagpipe solo. “I Keep a Close Watch on this Heart of Mine” is one of the most heartwrenching portraits of a man who has been burned too many times. He captures the essence of betrayal and its subsequent damning effects on the one who has been betrayed. It is a dark look at love and how it can harden the heart.

Never win and never lose
There’s nothing much to choose
Between the right and wrong
Nothing lost and nothing gained
Still things aren’t quite the same
Between you and me

I keep a close watch on this heart of mine
I keep a close watch on this heart of mine

I still hear your voice at night
When I turn out the light
And try to settle down
But there’s nothing much I can do
Because I can’t live without you
Any way at all

I don’t know why this song haunts me so. I have a healthy, optimistic view of love and its potential to cast life in a new light, but we’ve all been to that desperate place described in this song.

An even more disturbing view of love, obsession and hard feeling is “If You Were Still Around.” It is a bit of a hateful ditty about what he would do to those who have done him wrong. There is a lot of violence in his intentions and probably much more lurking in the subtext of this one. Actually, it’s pretty much in plain view as Cale openly lobbies for some sort of psychic or emotional cannibalism.

If you were still around
I’d hold you
I’d hold you
I’d shake you by the knees
Blow hard in both ears
If you were still around

You could write like a panther
Whatever got into your veins
What kind of green blood
Swung you to your doom
To your doom

If you were still around
I’d tear unto your fear
Leave it hanging off you
In long streamers

Shreds of dread
If you were still around
I’d turn you facing the wind
Bend your spine on my knee
Chew the back of your head
Chew the back of your head
‘Til you opened your mouth
To this life

It starts off as a tender song about longing and regret, but builds into something ugly. In fact, it’s a pretty primal song and reveals a man who wants to punish a lover who revealed herself to be a traitor to his love and friendship. The rest of the album isn’t quite so morbid and grisly, but it is still pretty damn depressing. Music For a New Society may be one of my favorite albums, but it isn’t one that I dust off often because it’s so full of bad juju.