Album of the Month: In Defense of John Cale’s ‘Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood’

OK, look, forget the title. It does have some relevance to this album’s contents, sure, but there’s no escaping the fact that defending an album called Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood isn’t exactly an enticing proposition, especially when that album’s made by a slightly odd septuagenarian with pink hair. But while the title’s not the only misstep that John Cale makes with his 15th solo full-length, this record is largely another fascinating chapter of a long and consistently groundbreaking career. It’s garnered kinda mixed reviews, but it’s been on high rotation chez Flavorpill, and it’s our album of the month for October.

For a start, it’s hard to think of anyone who’s had a career as long as Cale’s and is still managing to push the creative envelope in the same way that he has throughout the 2000s. His 2003 late-career flourish HoboSapien vies with his 1982 masterpiece Music for a New Society for the title of the best album he’s ever recorded, and while Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood isn’t quite on that level, it shits all over anything that his contemporaries are doing these days. (This is the first and last time we will allude to Lulu.)

But this album doesn’t just succeed in the context of Cale’s career — it stands on its own as one of the more intriguing records of the year. As ever with Cale, it takes several listens to work your way into the, um, Nookie Wood. Perhaps the first thing you notice is how slick this record sounds — much has been made of the fact that Cale worked with Danger Mouse on this album, but really, Mr. Mouse’s influence is limited to first track “I Wanna Talk 2 U,” a deceptively jaunty and ultimately underwhelming introduction to the record. Its slightly grandpa-down-the-disco flavor doesn’t really set the scene for what’s to come, so if that’s all you’ve heard of this album, trust us that the rest of Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood does bear further investigation.

The other thing you notice about this record is the Auto-Tune. The ubiquitous effect is slathered thick over parts of the release, most notably on “December Rains” and “Mothra.” Hearing Cale’s voice going all T-Pain on your ass is certainly jarring, but ultimately the idea works — as in some of the other examples of Auto-Tune songs that don’t suck we looked at here on Flavorpill recently, the effect’s used to create a sense of alienation and disconnection. And really, it’s only one in a veritable arsenal of sounds Cale employs throughout this record — the production throughout is top notch, a testament to Cale’s enduring talents as a studio innovator. The title track bounces along on a synth bass sound that’s so fat and squelchy that you could smear it on the walls, and elsewhere there are samples, loops and textures aplenty.

Ultimately, though, albums stand and fall on their songwriting, and Cale is in fine form here. The highlights are many and varied — “Hemmingway” recalls HoboSapiens‘ “Twilight Zone,” built around a chorus about a “thousand yard” stare, and even the title track is actually pretty great, its lyric apparently a recollection of certain activities Cale got up to in the titular wood in his youth.

In general, Cale’s lyrics remain as idiosyncratic as ever — the rather lovely “Mary” starts with the lines “You wanna call me Sam?/ Wanna call me Freddie?/ If you call me anything/ It’s fine/ It’s fine,” while “Vampire Café” depicts some sort of nightmarish confederation of cannibalistic evildoers, “Midnight Feast” namechecks Joni Mitchell for no apparent reason, and gorgeous closing track “Sandman (Flying Dutchman)” appears to be a valedictory ballad that compares a departed friend to the famous ghost ship. The album’s highlight, however, comes when Cale abandons the lyrical conceits and sings something truly heartfelt — “Living With You” is the prettiest love song he’s written in years, and one of the more lovely things we’ve heard all year.

As a whole, then, we encourage you to find your way into the Nookie Wood and stay a while. Genuinely immersive albums are fewer and further between than ever these days, and if you give this record a chance, your journey to this painfully named place may well be a rather illuminating one.

Other albums we loved this month:

Children of the Wave — The Electric Sounds of Faraway Choirs
ERAAS — ERAAS
Gudrun Gut — Wildlife
D’Eon — Music for Keyboards Vol. 3
The Mountain Goats — Transcendental Youth