Thursday, 2 August 2018

Lou Reed / John Cale ‎– Songs For Drella (1990)

Style: Art Rock, Alternative Rock
Format: CD, Vinyl, Cass.
Label: Sire, Warner Bros. Records

01.   Smalltown
02.   Open House
03.   Style It Takes
04.   Work
05.   Trouble With Classicists
06.   Starlight
07.   Faces And Names
08.   Images
09.   Slip Away (A Warning)
10.   It Wasn't Me
11.   I Believe
12.   Nobody But You
13.   A Dream
14.   Forever Changed
15.   Hello It's Me

Guitar – Lou Reed
Keyboards – John Cale
Viola – John Cale
Vocals – John Cale, Lou Reed
Mastered By – Bob Ludwig
Mixed By – Jeremy Darby, John Cale, Lou Reed, Michael Rathke
Producer – John Cale, Lou Reed
Recorded By – Jeremy Darby
Written-By – John Cale, Lou Reed

Regardless of whether it’s because it marks a crucial chapter in music history or simply because we can’t help but watch a train wreck, any talk about the shared legacies of Lou Reed and John Cale inevitably turns to the gory details about the prolonged pissing contest the two artists have had over the years. Ever since that fateful day Cale was unceremoniously ousted from the Velvet Underground at the behest of a control-mongering Reed -let’s be honest here – the two men have had a bizarre and often contentious sparring match that rivals any type of melodrama you’ll see in a television soap opera. 
Yet for all the hard feelings, bruised egos and darts thrown about in print media since Cale’s departure, the two men’s limited post-Velvets collaborations have mostly been respectable. Reed and Cale shared a stage with singer and cautionary tale Nico in an oft-bootlegged (and now commercially available) 1972 show in France, where the three former bandmates performed mellow, somewhat acoustic takes of various songs. Less successful -and that’s being charitable – was the Velvet’s ill-fated and legacy-humping reunion tour (and substandard live album, natch) in the early 1990s. 
In between that Bataclan one-off novelty and the reunion clusterfuck, Reed and Cale created Songs for Drella. Their most successful and creative collaboration, the album is an emotional and sincere (if occasionally fictionalized and romanticized) concept album about the life and death of pop artist and now crudely commercialized icon Andy Warhol. A sparsely arranged album based around Reed’s guitars and Cale’s keyboards and occasional strings, its songs trace a rough chronology from Warhol’s childhood in Pittsburgh to his eventual death in 1987. It’s a moving and striking homage to the artist as a person instead of his more widely known, primarily distant public persona, and still stands as one of the most inventive concept albums to date. 
Giving those armchair psychologists who view Reed as a diabolical control freak plenty of ammunition, Reed handles the bulk of the vocals here, sometimes to mixed results. Occasionally the vocals are over-enunciated and far too over the top (especially on “Starlight”), an unfortunate and frankly annoying tendency that has plagued Reed throughout his post-VU career. Yet these cases are rare and most of Reed’s vocals are compelling. Opening track “Small Town” begins with Cale’s bouncy keyboards as it describes the young Warhol – “Bad skin/ Bad eyes/ Gay and fatty” – and his desire to get the hell out of his Pittsburgh hometown. Up tempo and dryly humorous, it establishes the theme of Warhol as artistic visionary that later surfaces throughout the album. “Open House” offers brief biographical sketches as it portrays Warhol looking back at his Czechoslovakian heritage, against Cale’s piano melody that simply repeats the same two notes. “Work” and “Images” take a crack at Warhol’s artistic philosophy (“images are worth repeating“) and approximate the Velvet’s style, especially in the electric viola that tears through the latter song. 
The tracks sung by Cale usually take a decidedly different approach. With the exception of the manic “Trouble With Classicists” and the dully electric “Forever Changed,” Cale’s songs are mostly hushed and languid, relying on atmospherics, strings, and keyboards to convey Warhol’s story. “Style It Takes” and “Faces and Names” are both airy and floating, with somewhat orchestral strings, subdued percussion, and a fluid guitar line. Cale’s depiction of Warhol is similarly heartfelt and sympathetic; the lyrics read like a eulogy to the artist. These songs also straddle the line between biographical reporting and mythmaking; anything that could be perceived as a character flaw in Warhol is instead depicted as the quirks or eccentricities of a misunderstood genius. 
The songs that focus on mortality and aging, often in the guise of the two musicians offering a farewell to Warhol with a mixture of regret and pathos, still remain the album’s true centerpieces. It’s on these songs where both Reed and Cale explore themes that extend far beyond the sphere of a Warhol retrospective. “A Dream” is perhaps the album’s standout track; a spoken word piece with Cale accompanied by minimal piano and brushes of percussion, it depicts Warhol pouring over his past in a dream, both his Factory crowd and artistic inspiration long gone. As Factory shadows from Warhol’s earlier years flit in and out, Cale imagines the artist as brooding and pensive, as he recalls everything from not being invited to Reed’s wedding to being shot by Valerie Solanis in 1968 (“There’s blood leaking through my shirt/ From those scars from being shot“). Similarly, Reed provides his own tribute in closing song “Hello It’s Me.” Backed by Cale’s viola, it’s one of Reed’s more confessional and emotional songs, thankfully free of the macho armor and posturing that have sunk too many of his post- VU albums. It’s a goodbye disguised as an apology, where Reed does a shitload of pride swallowing, blankly admitting that he has “some resentments that can never be unmade.” 
Though Songs for Drella doesn’t match the musicians’ output from either The Velvet Underground and Nico or White Light White Heat, it’s still one of music’s more unassuming and unimposing concept albums. It focuses not on the aloof and cool public persona usually associated with Warhol, but instead on a poignant and personal depiction of Warhol as someone with insecurities and doubts about his life and what it’s meant. Though it’s likely that Lou Reed and John Cale will never collaborate together again – the punches that the two men still occasionally throw at each other don’t count – Songs for Drella is a nice closing chapter to that relationship.
Eric Dennis / Spectrum Culture

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