Ironically, John Cale’s first album in nearly five years turns out to be one of the season’s timeliest entries: a graphic, deadly narrative of terrorist scrimmages and doomed maneuvers that could pass for an on-the-spot report from the clandestine alleys of Kabul or the invincible deserts of Iran.
In fact, Sabotage/Live — without apology and, more important, without ideology — is something of a rough-and-ready homage to the business of war itself: “I did some work in Zaire, the jolly old Belgian Congo/… I’m just another soldier boy looking for work,” sings Cale in “Mercenaries (Ready for War).” But to Cale’s great credit, the protagonist in most of these songs is more than a cutthroat opportunist — he’s a heartbroken, hard-bitten man, hellbent on accommodating his personal dissolution to the rhythms of global disintegration, which makes him all the more virulent.
This air of menace permeates the music, too, but with less effective results. Cale’s past LPs anticipated — even goaded — punk rock and the New Wave’s twin tributaries of artful primitivism and arty experimentation, though all the while his heart probably belonged to lyrical, classical romanticism. Yet Sabotage/Live, with its verbose guitar forays and heavy-handed martial tempos, seems almost antedated in comparison — like a long-lost retort to former cohort Lou Reed’s Rock n Roll Animal. Still, I prefer the best moments here — the stormy and dissonant title track, the coy and undecipherable “Only Time Will Tell” (a vehicle for cooing chanteuse Deerfrance) and the jaunty and insidious “Dr. Mudd” — to practically all of Elvis Costello’s Get Happy!!
After Sabotage/Live‘s battles have been won or lost, after the bluster has faded, it’s the sobering refrain from the closing “Chorale” — a haunting, requiem-like ballad — that lingers longest. “And the code of the living,” sings the thick-throated Cale, “and the code of the dead/Hand In hand, from the beginning to the end.” Just a glimmer of respite in a record about holocaust. And maybe one glimmer more than any of us will get when John Cale’s deathly visions become tomorrow’s headlines.