For much of Mercy’s duration, it’s as though John Cale is participating from a supernatural plain. This striking tonal sensibility welcomes the listener with the airy opener and remains for its entirety. The Welsh artist is enveloped by twinkling textures, the reverb applied to his vocals (‘Marilyn Monroe’s Legs (beauty elsewhere)’, ‘Noise of You’) further conjures a spectral image of our protagonist. Establishing such an engrossing atmosphere so early in its runtime is just one of Mercy’s many charms.
The imagery presented throughout Cale’s seventeenth studio album is fascinating; parties, poppies, rushing rivers, Marilyn Monroe’s legs. Coming from a figure of such innovation and influence as John Cale, fine combing his words to crack open any perceived cipher is akin to solving a Rubik’s Cube. A crucial recurring visual is snow. This seeps into the songwriting, from the inherent coldness emanating from the synths of ‘Noise of You’ to the frostiness in some of his lyrics which can be relentless, sometimes ruthless, but there is remorse. Take ‘Moonstruck (Nico’s Song)’ in which Cale sings about his former Velvet Underground bandmate. “So afraid of your own shadow / following close behind / How did you cover so much territory,” he wonders. The line, callous as it might seem, follows a plea for tenderness: “Please console me, yes please hold me/ I have come to make my peace”. There’s a duality at play, a person can hold two separate mindframes, exist in two worlds.
This juxtaposition is central to Mercy’s DNA. Cale makes couplets out of contradictory statements. After all, he opens the record with “Lives do matter / Lives don’t matter”. Aside from the unwavering quality of the compositions (particularly ‘Night Crawling’, a Blackstar-esque ‘The Legal Status of Eyes’) and Cale’s faultless performance, the steadfast whomping beat anchoring the arrangements, keeping one foot firmly on solid ground, is an exceptional player within the LP.
Seven of Mercy’s 12 songs feature guests (Weyes Blood, Animal Collective and Fat White Family) and while their contributions are minimal and mostly textural, it’s compelling to see two different generations come together with such ease. 60 years into his career, John Cale’s genius continues to thrive.