I went on a bit of a John Cale binge in late '98 and early '99 after the first couple of times I saw him play live. I'd known of Words for the Dying for years, but hadn't realised it contained the 'original' versions of of his settings of Dylan Thomas — On a Wedding Anniversary, Lie Still, Sleep Becalmed and Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night. The live versions of those songs are among the highlights of a stunningly brilliant album, so I was intrigued to hear what they'd sound like with orchestra and choir instead of just piano and one voice.
Answer: nothing like as powerful. The cracks and croaks, so expressive in live performance, have been removed from Cale's smoothed-out and well-rehearsed voice. And many of the most powerful lines, like the "we shall obey, and ride with you" section in Lie Still… are given over to the choir that sounds like a remote chorus, commenting on events rather than being swept up in them.
Produced by Brian Eno, it says in big letters on the back. Is the only time he's produced orchestral recordings? I didn't think that was his bag — little scope for "using the studio as an instrument". Could he possibly just have acted as executive producer? Except for the last song, The Soul of Carmen Miranda, which is a kind of trailer for Cale and Eno's Wrong Way Up a year or two later.
Footnote: the second album to feature a lyric about "trance of dances".
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