John Cale is relentlessly innovative, his latest project is a radical re-interpretation of his 1982 album Music For A New Society. The result is a dramatically different album using familiar building blocks, perhaps a better title would have been Music For A New Century. The 73 year-old Velvet Underground co-founder certainly isn't a stranger to producing experimental and challenging material, but with M:FANS he seems to have found a balance that demonstrates these traits while remaining accessible. While the word masterpiece is often associated with the original album, I'd stop short of that description for its offspring.
Pleasingly although packaged together here, M:FANS works in isolation to Music For A New Society. It's a strong album in its own right and shouldn't be compared too closely to the former incarnations of these songs. There's a sense that this is not a project draped in the usual nostalgia. Cale has chosen to revisit an album that endured a difficult gestation to achieve some closure. Indeed the themes of regret and loss found on Music For A New Society seem just as relevant for the Welshman in 2016 as they did in 1982. While talking about the creation of M:FANS Cale has referenced the death of former bandmate Lou Reed as a contributing factor, and it's palpable when listening to this new material that a certain exorcism of past pain is being undertaken here.
M:FANS opens with a track that Cale regretted omitting from his original work, a spoken word telephone conversation with his mother. As you'd expect 'Prelude' is deeply personal and plays like an ambient daydream. It seems to set the stall out that this is not to be a faithful track-by-track re-adjustment of the original record. The sparseness of arrangement and general absence of other musicians on Music For A New Society is transformed on M:FANS. Cale adopts his more recent style of electronically enhanced instrumentation using a full band with vocal loops and samples. It's a radical departure from the largely solo and improvised takes on the original.
If there is a problem to be found with M:FANS it's that some of these songs now drown under the weight of the production. Cale's narrative gets lost somewhat on the industrial sounding 'Sanctus' or the newly re-instated 'Library Of Force'. They're jarring and unsettling moments amongst some well-fleshed out and nuanced performances. 'Broken Bird' and 'Back To The End' are both delicate musings that become immersive with the addition of Cale's more recent production techniques. 'Chinese Envoy' sounds wonderful with a new Pop sheen that would sit happily on any chart-topping record. 'Close Watch' remains one of Cale's best compositions, but here in its third studio incarnation the additional flourishes seem detrimental, failing to elevate an already classic song. It's a similar story for 'Changes Made', which seemed a little estranged from the other material on Music For A New Society (it's inclusion was dictated by the record company in 1982). On M:FANS Cale re-claims the song with vigour, but the distorted and driving bass and drums detract from what is otherwise a pretty faultless composition.
On a personal level I may still prefer Music For A New Society to M:FANS, but the latter is a very different kind of album that stands strongly alongside Cale's recent work, of which Hobosapiens has been a particular highlight. That he is able re-visit his previous projects and mine even more emotional resonance on a second expedition is impressive. It's even more so, when you consider his approach is at odds with the usual minimal effort re-packaging of past glories that hace flooded the market in recent years. Let's hope that M:FANS has given Cale the catharsis he needed to make more forward-thinking and sonically diverse material in years to come.
Photo credit: David Reich.
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