John Cale: M:FANS / Music for a New Society

Velvet Underground vet remakes a 1982 artifact, transforming and deepening it in the process

Credit: Shawn Brackbill

Like many musicians, John Cale tends to excel in collaboration – see the Dream Syndicate, the Velvet Underground, albums with Nico, duets with Terry Riley and Brian Eno, and production for the Stooges, the Modern Lovers and Patti Smith. Cale's 1982 LP Music For A New Society, however, was a largely solo effort, and one of the grimmest, loneliest LPs ever made. There are songs about shame and death, about violent longing, with melodies sometimes fragile, sometimes shattered. There's the sound of sobbing, and a line lifted from another J.C. who dwells on human darkness, Johnny Cash ("Close Watch"). One song is titled "Broken Bird," another called "Damn Life," and the album ends with Cale hollering about "the crawling skin of God." You get the picture. 

It was remarkable work, but a rough listen. So the idea to revisit that place 30 years later and reinvent the record – in essence, to collaborate with his old self – is kinda brilliant. The palette of the acronymic M:FANS, issued with a handsomely remastered version of the original Music For A New Society, is largely electronic, the sound of a septuagenarian composer and rock dude using the past as a bridge to the present. "Thoughtless Kind" becomes a goth-industrial ballad, Cale's processed vocals split between mid-Seventies Bowie cybernetics and Auto-Tuned 21st century R&B. "Close Watch" becomes a brightened, digitally-fragmented duet with Amber Coffman of Dirty Projectors. Most tellingly, perhaps, "If You Were Still Around" is reimagined twice, transformed from the personal hell of the original – a bereft dirge sung over organ chords as if in an empty church – into first a swarming ambient purgatory, and finally into a hip-hop gospel hymn. You might imagine it directed at Cale's old friend Lou Reed, or Nico, or other fallen comrades. But it's less a lament than a celebration. "I don't feel so bad, and always look forward with hope," Cale sings on the remade "Taking Your Life In Your Hands," and this time you almost believe him.