John Cale - Fear - Classic Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

John Cale - Fear

by Kevin Orton Rating:10 Release Date:1974-10-01
John Cale - Fear
John Cale - Fear

Where Paris 1919 was a lushly orchestrated Baroque Rock masterpiece, it’s follow-up was another matter. 1974’s Fear was a more stripped-down, punch to the gut Rock record. While the title track and back sleeve of Cale huddled up on top of a refrigerator, might hint at a precarious mental state, Cale sounds far more confident than on his last two solo efforts.

'Fear' kicks things off and perversely takes its cue from the Velvet Underground’s, 'Waiting For My Man'. Here Cale is “Standing waiting for a man to show, wide-eyed, one eye fixed on the door.”  What ensues is an increasingly unhinged ballad of addiction, paranoia, and longing. With Cale literally freaking out at the end. By contrast, ‘Buffalo Ballet’ harkens back to Paris 1919 with its tale of corruption and moral decay in the Old West. One of Cale’s most gorgeous and panoramic ballads. A classic, with a haunting chorus that will never leave your head once you’ve heard it.  

‘Barracuda’, is a jaunty little ditty which finds Cale sawing mercilessly away on his infamous viola. Lyrically, its a murderous tale with the kind of bon mots that could give anyone nightmares. “Dark woman in a cupboard burning” for starters. The dreamy, ‘Emily’ follows with its rolling waves, ghostly choir, and spare piano. A Brontë gothic novel of a ballad. Then the ‘Ship of Fools’ sails into port with charming sentiments like, “The black book, a grappling hook, a hangman’s noose on a burnt-out tree.” A song which characterizes much of Fear. Beautiful melodies, telling you terrible things. While musically accessible, lyrically this is perversely bleak stuff. And it’s this juxtaposition of the inviting and uninviting, that makes Fear so compelling.

The album’s centerpiece is the eight-minute, ‘Gun’.  A gritty, sordid rocker detailing the crimes of an underworld hit man. The chilling line, “When you begin to think like a gun, the days of the year have suddenly gone”. ‘Gun’ also boasts a fierce two-man guitar solo from Brian Eno and Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera.  Eno using the synthesizer to process Manzanera’s playing in real time. The end result is furious and unsettling.

Cale eases up on the intensity with the goofy Beach Boys pastiche of, ‘The Man Who Couldn’t Afford to Orgy’. Cale charmingly pronouncing “orgy” with a soft “G” in his Welsh accent. In addition, Judy Nylon (of Snatch) alluringly provides female encouragement.  Call it satire or filler, it’s a much-needed relief on an album whose main courses are Fear and Loathing.  

Speaking of loathing, ‘You Know More Than I Know’, is as cynical and bitter as ballads come. “Liability and greed, there’s no more you need,” Cale croons amid Liberace flourishes on the ivories. Culminating in the pithy couplet, “Bury me among the weeds that creep into the hearts of all the weak.”

The original release draws things to a close with the dark, disturbing groove of ‘Momamma Scuba’, featuring the legendary Richard Thompson on slide guitar. No stranger to doom and gloom himself, it’s a purposely unsettling end to an album that never wants the listener to be entirely comfortable. 

Fear would set the tone for the rest of Cale’s tenure at Island records in the 70’s. Both Slow Dazzle and Helen of Troy would be dark, Glam Rock workouts, featuring moonlighting members of Roxy Music and Brian Eno lending a hand now and then. While Cale’s old Velvet Underground bandmate, could be just as grim an uncompromising, Lou Reed at least managed to stumble upon at hit with ‘Walk On The Wild Side’. None of that was in the cards for Cale. For a variety of reasons. And I think Cale knew that and instead, strove to challenge both himself and his small, appreciative audience. Regardless of the commercial consequences. Call him stubborn, arty or pretentious, but Cale could never be accused of being a sellout. That said, as dark and edgy as Fear is, it remains entirely approachable. When not underrated, Cale is often thoughtlessly cast in Lou Reed’s shadow. Yet, when it comes to 70’s Art Rock, records like Fear and Paris 1919 go to show, Cale’s up there with Bowie and Eno.

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