Last Day on Earth

Although John Cale's reputation has been inextricably linked with (and often overshadowed by) Lou Reed's since the two men founded the Velvet Underground, it is fitting that his most frequent collaborator on the Seducing Down the Door compilation is Brian Eno. Over the past couple of decades, the two have had few peers as rock catalysts — both were crucial members of influential bands, fired in power struggles with willful frontmen and subsequently credited with producing modern-rock milestones (debut albums by the Stooges, Nico, Patti Smith and the Modern Lovers, in Cale's case).

With 38 cuts on two discs spanning 21 years, Seducing puts Cale's recording career in sharp perspective, celebrating his uniqueness of vision and adventurousness while documenting the inconsistencies of his roller-coaster output. The problem inherent in such a survey is that Cale's artistry depends on context and juxtaposition for full effect; his albums work best as albums. Here, highlights from such masterworks as Paris 1919, Fear, Slow Dazzle and Music for a New Society are offset by selections that earned their quick trips to the cutout bins.

A subversive classicist who revels in contradiction, Cale is a conservatory formalist (on piano and viola) with a penchant for anarchy, an avant-gardist who both embraces and assaults rock convention, a cultivated Welshman with a taste for the jugular. Mysteries abound within songs of dreamlike dissociation in which soothing melodies conjure "insettling atmospheres, and as Cale sings in "Leaving It Up to You," "We can all feel safe like Sharon Tate." Although the wistful, subtle melodies of the early selections find Cale veering as far as possible from the dark repetitions of the Velvets, he reclaimed the band's legacy in the mid-'70s with the aggression of "Fear Is a Man's Best Friend" and "Gun," songs that made much of rock's emerging New Wave seem callow by comparison.

Proceeding by misdirection, Cale subsequently matched some of his most sprightly tunes with lethal subject matter ("Jack the Ripper," "Dead or Alive"), wrenched familiar touchstones such as "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Walkin' the Dog" into tortured psychodrama and achieved an exquisite balance of terror and beauty in "Taking Your Life in Your Hands." While one extreme of Cale's music revels in madness and rant, "I Keep a Close Watch" is romanticism at its most reflective and tender. Closing the collection is Cale's reunion with Reed in tribute to Andy Warhol, which seems to bring them full circle but leaves them in a very different place from where they started.

Cale's most recent project teams him with singer/songwriter Bob Neuwirth on Last Day on Earth, variously described as a performance piece, a song cycle and "a blueprint for theater." Whatever it is, it sounds like a radio play that is too slight to support its thematic conceits, with few tracks that sustain musical interest independent of the conceptual baggage. Cale is introduced as "a tourist" (later a prisoner and an innocent), with Neuwirth his guide into this cafe society of the damned. Variously reminiscent of Kafka, Beckett and The Wizard of Oz this is art that is way too aware of its artiness, making it hard to tell (and tough to care) whether the collaboration is satirizing smug, easy irony or suffering from it.