John Cale: Mercy – Raging against the dying of the light

Cale is on fierce form as his voice, rich and commanding, weaves around well-chosen collaborators

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Artist: John Cale
Genre: Rock
Label: Domino

John Cale’s fellow countryman Dylan Thomas wrote in 1947: “Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light”. With Mercy, Cale’s first collection of original material in a decade, he indeed burns, raves and rages.

Rage as constructive energy bursts through this album, with Cale on fierce form. His voice, so familiar, rich and commanding, weaves around a spirited collection of collaborators, deftly picked to aid in his quest to explode some beauty into the darkness.

Laurel Halo brings some glacial synth pop to the title track, and Actress convey a doomy crawl on Marilyn Monroe’s Leg. Weyes Blood’s contribution is stellar on Story of Blood, a song about how we can perhaps, save each other – elegant, sobering piano gives way to beats and synthesizers, bringing us back to Fear-era Cale.

In fact, there are many references to Cale’s musical and personal past, so often intertwined. Moonstruck (Nico’s Song) is a synth-led love-letter of sorts to his old friend, and Night Crawling is a homage to Bowie and their trawling through the New York streets by night. There is an elegiac tone to Noise of You, and a sense of trying to gather absent friends – “I’m going back to get them, my friends in the morning. Bring them with me into the light.”


That light is there amid the rage, with memory acting as a kind of lightning rod. Time Stands Still is wonderfully disruptive, with Sylvan Esso providing the electro pulse – “I don’t want to hear about heartache or dancing on the snow,” Cale growls, never in the habit of repeating himself. Animal Collective help him salvage and play with memory on Everlasting Time, as they suspend and repeat vocals amid a dub-drum and bass atmosphere.

Cale has always been good at harnessing a sense of the uncanny, and it is everywhere on this record – in the beautiful detachment of Not the End of the World, and on The Legal Status of Ice, where he joins forces with Fat White Family for a wonky take on climate change, where menacing chants float atop industrial dancehall-trip-hop, and I Know You’re Happy with Tei Shi brings melodramatic vocals to a song about an unequal relationship.

Out Your Window is probably the most Velvet Underground-like song on the record, it is so embedded in Cale’s DNA, with its pounding piano and thick reverb bringing to mind I’m Waiting for the Man. The song almost screams about survival, about breaking someone’s fall, but as it turns out, Cale has broken his own.

Siobhán Kane

Siobhán Kane is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in culture