Published Jan 22, 2016When John Cale released Music for a New Society in 1982, he was a mess. Struggling with drug addiction, the former Velvet Underground member was angry and confused when he took to New York City's Sky Line Studios to provide improvised recordings for the collection — an experience he later described as "torturous" in his 1999 autobiography What's Welsh for Zen? (Bloomsbury).
Through its varied characters and story arcs (Cale set several poems from actor and playwright Sam Shepard to music for the release), New Society functioned as a core sample of all the musician-producer's raw, fragmented pain, angst, regret, doubt and exhaustion at the time. But it was also defined by an overarching ironic calmness that dually emphasized the lyrics' consistent articulation of alienation and represented a turning point for Cale. Upon its release, the record was celebrated for its emotional honesty and the sparse, curious instrumental sections that haunted each of its entries. Adored by critics, some even tossed around the word "masterpiece." Still, it was a critical flop.
Now, 33 years after that release made its modest impression, Cale has returned to the work. With this new reissue of the album under the moniker M:FANS, its fans (pun probably intended, at least on Cale's part) get a new, expanded remaster of the original, but also a second volume that reimagines that source material for today's new society.
The former is mostly delivered in the tradition of longer, louder cuts typical of contemporary remasters, edging up its previously subtler atmospheres to more booming and ominous proportions. Cale completists will also be delighted to find some bonus outtakes of "Chinese Envoy" and "Thoughtless Kind," as well as a new version of "Library of Force," which originally only appeared as "In the Library of Force" — itself a longer track — on the 1993 CD reissue of the album. Those arguing that the remastered album amounts to little more than another casualty of the loudness war aren't wrong, but in the context of M:FANS proper, it does exhibit some virtue as a more appropriate primer for the new world Cale's created for his listeners.
Right from the outset, it's clear that M:FANS is going to provide a dramatically different experience than the one Music for a New Society did. Opening with some DNA from the once lost "Mama's Song" (here given the weightier title "Prelude") the record liberates a phone call between Cale and his now-deceased mother that was once traded for a bagpipe instrumental and absorbed into middle track "(I Keep A) Close Watch" and drops it into a rumbling arena of noise, introducing an entirely more disruptive sound than the one that permeated the 1982 record.
M:FANS continues to jumble the tracklisting of its source, next serving a take on "If You Were Still Around" that is dominated by devastating synthesizers in place of the original's mournful organs. That track took on new meaning for Cale following the passing of Lou Reed in 2013, and on the one-year anniversary of his death, Cale released a special choir reprise of the track dedicated to his former Velvets bandmate and collaborator, also included on this record.
Working with the band that helped him create 2012 album Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood, Cale is making a lot of noise on M:FANS, but that's less an attempt at remaining relative (something Cale's never really been concerned with) than a wise and savvy response to a culture that pursues a vocabulary of abbreviations and emojis in an attempt to keep abreast of an accelerated production of information. Where Music for a New Society provided a harrowing account of what it is to feel out of touch, M:FANS and its density gives listeners a maddened articulation of how alienation today feels more like option anxiety and hyper-connection — symptomatic of a culture in which information is claustrophobic, assaultive, inescapable.
It's a staggering and elaborate rethinking of a landmark release that maintains the surreal experience of the original with today's cultural landscape in mind. It's music for a new society, all over again. (Domino)