The dense nightmare of sound that John Cale has created for Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood is surprisingly accessible.
The dense nightmare of sound that John Cale has created for Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood is surprisingly accessible. In the depths of the mechanical, occasionally jarring compositions, one can find melodies that would not be out of place in the Top 40. They’re simply dressed up heavily by John Cale’s need to explore the capabilities of musical technology and create interesting sonic textures.
There is something familiar about Shifty Adventures that I can’t quite put my eardrum on. There’s a sort of Joy Division meets Bryan Ferry quality to it, but both were influenced by Cale—it’s likely simply a side effect of half a century of making music catching up to him. The dark atmosphere of the album is most evident on the appropriately titled “Vampire Cafe,” but every track has a touch of Gothic ambiance. Pegging this as a blend of new wave, glam, experimental, and industrial doesn’t suffice to fully capture everything going on here.
The album opens with an acoustic guitar line on a song that features Danger Mouse, the famed hip hop producer, and the blend of influence and innovation only grows from there. On tracks like “Living With You,” Cale incorporates gentle guitar and ethereal hums with drums like a thunderstorm and vocals that wouldn’t be out of place in a Psychedelic Furs song (and a beautiful, extended vocal at one point that wouldn’t quite make Donna Summer proud, but still makes me happy). The electronic scatter beats of “Face to the Sky” could come out of a 90s triphop album, but the auto-tune is, while fitting in the context, still jarring to hear. Not that one should necessarily ever get too comfortable while listening to a John Cale album. The auto-tune comes back a few times, notably on “Mothra,” where it combines with a militant rock’n’roll beat to create one of the colder, more bizarre tracks on the record.
Meanwhile, on “Scotland Yard,” the dark tone only amplifies the paranoia present in the lyrics, which are delivered over an escalating siren wail at one point, combining with a fugue-like delivery to give you the distinct impression you are being chased. The title track has a slightly lighter tone to it, with its vaguely funky guitar riffs and bleeping synths creates an almost whimsical feel (which is not surprising considering it really is called “Nookie Wood”) that is off-set by his dreary vocals and its sudden ending, when someone stops the record without lifting the needle.
The final track of the album, “Sandman (Flying Dutchman),” though, might be the real stand out track. Of all the tracks, it has the most warmth to it (though that is definitely a relative warmth on this album), and as the lyrics gently speak of drifting away, the music threatens to do just that to the listener, softly washing over you and lingering there before pulling back with that 808 beat reminding you that this lullaby is by a 21st century John Cale.