Captures John Cale at the top of his game.
First released in 1992 and now reissued in expanded form, Fragments of a Rainy Season captures John Cale at the top of his game. Armed only with a piano, a guitar and his voice, he carries the listener through a variety of moods that are sublime, unsettling and always true to his singular vision.
The record opens with three tracks adapted from Dylan Thomas. A haunting, heart-stopping rendition of “On A Wedding Anniversary” gives way to “Lie Still, Sleep Becalmed,” delivered with a quiet fervor that inspires deep reverence for Cale’s warm, knowing voice and deeply powerful piano performance. “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” serves as kind of early climax as the former Velvet Underground man slashes and smashes his way into the tune’s climax with all the defiance and purpose that Thomas’ words demand.
Cale is of course no slouch as a lyricist, and his own poetry comes to the fore via “Buffalo Ballet,“ a stately portrait of the old West as seen through European eyes, and the sometimes appropriately frightening “Fear (Is A Man’s Best Friend),” both culled from his essential 1974 album Fear. It’s there, too, on the kind-of-love song “Darling (I Need You)” (introduced as a song “about religious awakening in the southern part of the United States”), which would feel like Brian Wilson wandering his way through Tin Pan Alley if not for the darkness of Cale’s keyboard work and the bitterness lurking in the pleas for a lover’s return. Meanwhile, “Chinese Envoy,” originally from the 1982 album Music for A New Society, reveals an unexpected stateliness and deep sense of longing in its portrait of a vanished way of living.
The scope of the album makes one regret that Cale’s songs have not found the wider audience they deserve. “Dying on the Vine” (from 1985’s Artificial Intelligence) speaks great truths about lost opportunities, while “Paris 1919” offers more of the same. Its carefully-structured melody, the tension in the chords and in Cale’s voice has all the drama and heartbreaking beauty of David Bowie, without burying the emotions in his typical enigma.
Cale is not above basic emotions, however. As he introduces “(I Keep A) Close Watch,” he encourages listeners to hold onto someone they love as they hear a song about a man missing his lover. One of the best songs Cale ever wrote, it’s as pure and direct expression of hurt as anything.
With this retrospective air, Cale is not against looking backward: “Style it Takes,” from the Lou Reed collaboration, Songs for Drella, recalls the early days of the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol’s Factory with sentiments that may bring tears to the most stoic eyes.
Fragments is also notable for its inclusion of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” years before Jeff Buckley aired it on Grace. Cale’s voice brings the grit and maturity the song requires and the kind of passion it deserves. Though it’s become a go-to for weddings, funerals and college voice recitals, few seem to understand the reach of the words like Cale does. It’s such a gripping performance that one quickly forgets it’s a cover. Likewise his version of “Heartbreak Hotel,” originally attempted on Slow Dazzle. Bold and dramatic, the sound of someone who has reached the end of their rope, it may lead you to ask, “Elvis who?”
The fine original release is expanded with bonus tracks, like the two alternate takes of “Fear.” On the first, Cale’s voice shows sign of wear, though it gives a more human weight to the lyrics; strings define the second take, bringing out the song’s unexpected beauty. An appropriately ragged “I’m Waiting for the Man,” among others, gives lovers of the original record more to love, while newcomers get an extra taste of Cale at his best. Fragments of a Rainy Season is a perfect entry point for anyone eager to dig into the back catalog of this fierce, charismatic performer.