If John Cale had never recorded another note after his 1968 ouster from the Velvet Underground, his place in rock music history would be secure. But Cale did, in fact, move on with a series of solo albums and collaborations that solidified his reputation as the VU's most restless and adventurous member. While erstwhile foil Lou Reed can never seem to fully escape the past, Cale has rarely ceased looking toward the future.
All the same, Cale often takes his time getting there. Since his prolific days in the '70s, Cale doesn't get around to releasing solo albums that often, at least not in the pop music idiom. "HoboSapiens" is his first rock outing since 1996; the rest of his time has been spent scoring films and ballets, activities perhaps more in line with his classical background than his tenure in one of rock's most pioneering bands.
The beats, electronic bleats, and loops mark "HoboSapiens" as a contemporary work; Cale has clearly kept his ear out for new ideas and trends. Yet at the heart of these songs is Cale's voice, a familiar almost comforting Welsh-accented moan, still compelling if occasionally weary-sounding. With his sometimes graceful, sometimes crooked lyrics, Cale mines the whimsical and the mysterious, his words rife with references religious, artistic, scientific and philosophical.
Yes, Cale can be pretentious: "Magritte," with its somber viola-laced beat, is little more than a nostalgic tribute to the tricky painter. But Cale can be quite funny as well. In "Zen" he puns on "Eros turning on a spit," and the surreal imagery of "Archimedes" is just plain screwy. "Things" is a song of seduction that touches on warfare, geography, Warren Zevon, language and even Charlie Brown -- good grief.
But like the best of Cale's work, there's a strain of doom running through the songs, with even the brighter tracks darkened by the shadow of death and decay. "Caravan" envisions the road to the afterlife as a carpool. "Letter From Abroad," a gently discordant ditty, casually reminds us of capital punishment in Afghanistan, and in "Twilight Zone" Cale declares that "the milk of human kindness has curdled in your cup." Lest anyone forget Cale's uncanny way with a good sideways hook, there are still songs like "Things" and the peppy "Reading My Mind," a meet-cute tale of romance and Italian cars.
Some familiar names crop up in the liner notes as well -- PJ Harvey sideman Joe Gore, frequent Cale cohort Brian Eno -- but the project is virtually all multi-instrumentalist Cale, composed of samples and fleshed out by his friends. At 62, Cale (supported by producer Nick Franglen) seems comfortable with the technology of dance music, though the musician frequently uses the freedom of cut-and-paste construction as a way to shirk stylistic constraints. Typically a singer at Cale's stage (and age) would adopt pop trends as a way to enhance his own relevance, but "HoboSapiens" points in a different direction. Cale here sounds not cynical or overconfident but simply as musically curious as ever.