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John Cale – POPtical Illusion
Domino/Double Six

You never know what to expect from a new John Cale record, whether it be avant-garde experimentation, a reinterpretation of an older release, or simply dirty ass rock ‘n’ roll. 

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Now, after a decade without new material, the octogenarian composer/songwriter has released POPtical Illusion, his second album in just over a year. Whereas 2023’s Mercy—an R&B-tinged dream pop collection—felt like a post-COVID splashing out with its big-name collaborations (Weyes Blood, Animal Collective, Sylvan Esso, Laurel Halo, and more), the follow-up finds Cale retreating inward, with compelling results.

“There’s someone whispering in my ear tonight,” Cale sings on opener “God Made Me Do It (don’t ask me again).” It’s an appropriate mission statement for a dense record that often feels hermetically sealed off. Cale’s friable voice never sits high in the mix. Instead, it floats, burbles up, drifts, whispers in our ears. And while the rage and dread inherent on Mercy remain, Cale sounds wearier and more resigned in his anger.

Clocking in at over an hour across 13 tracks, POPtical Illusion will likely require patience to fully penetrate its walls. Lead single “How We See the Light” is easily the most accessible track, with its Todd Terje-leaning electronic textures and sing-along hook. But even then, Cale will fool you with the song’s asymmetric rhyming chorus. 

From the blocky organ chunks that lead “I’m Angry” to the fuzzed-out almost-boogie of “Shark-Shark,” the diversity of POPtical Illusion teases its way out after subsequent listens. “But there was something you’d see / Or something you’d hear / That made you come back again,” Cale chants over beautifully arpeggiated piano on closer “There Will Be No River.” But is he speaking to his audience? Or perhaps he is talking to himself, looking back over this rebirth of songwriting with amazement, wonder, and even a little fear. – GRADE: B+

Domino/Double Six

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