Bursts of baroque and whirls of whimsy abound on this wonderful chamber piece of an album. Perfectly evocative, it recalls the last brisk cold breath you take before you enter a house that’s got the heating on; I can’t imagine listening to it in any other month but December. It’s a warm album, full of luscious strings and a lovely noodling guitar that skirts around the periphery of the songs like a cautious but confident lover.
Each of these songs is of a piece; even the most rousing thing on here, “Macbeth”, recalls nothing more rollicking than a simple knees-up around the family fire (at most, a warm gathering in a well-lit pub). The title track is the obvious stand-out, mixing bursts of electric guitar like a train departing the station with a scabrous, playfully poisonous delivery by Cale; “you’re a ghost, fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la”. He could be talking about German-Franco relations after the First World War, or it could be delivered to a former lover (okay, it’s definitely about German-Franco relations, but it’s all subjective right?).
Wilfully vague is the order of the day, lyrics-wise. Cale pitches his vocals low down in the mix to make room for the instrumentation, making it hard to discern narrative flow in the song. Instead, lovely little phrases pop out like a mouse scurrying from a hole looking for cheese; “the Beaujolais is raining”, “the civil servant Carruthers”, “Andalucia/When can I see her?”, and so on.
I’m going to hedge my bets and say that this is a deeply personal album; or at least, it feels personal. It’s a bit of an outlier in Cale’s output, and you’d have great fun explaining to someone new to this whole music thing that the man responsible for this album also did those haunting violin strings for VU’s “Heroin”. But rather than delving into specifics, Cale has gone for oblique meanings that presumably only make sense to him.
This works; it opens the album up for a personal engagement, and it can mean whatever you want to, evoke anything you like. For me, it reminds of me of weird specificities that go back to my childhood; the sound of the Match of the Day guy reading out the scores; my grandfather’s study; the burgundy carpet of said study; playing with toy trains.
It’s also music that’s clearly in a long tradition of baroque that goes back to The Left Banke and ended when Belle and Sebastian put out their Northern Soul album. It’s the kind of music that wears its heart so earnestly on its sleeve that it tends not to attract much critical analysis, but instead devoted legions of fans addicted to the feeling. It’s an album to settle into a warm armchair with, to dig out old copies of Beano annuals to. It should come with a cup of tea, milk two sugars.
Oh yeah, it’s all so hopelessly twee, but I don’t care and neither should you. It’s Christmaaaaas.