Music for a New Society is a studio album by John Cale, released in September 1982 by ZE Records and Island Records. With the suggestion from ZE Records owner Michael Zilkha, Cale performed the album mostly improvised live at Sky Line Studios in New York City. In his 2000 autobiography What's Welsh for Zen?, Cale described the recording of Music for a New Society as "tortuous";AllMusic described the album as "among the most compelling music of his career; the open spaces of the arrangements are at once ambient and melodically compelling, and the songs have an emotional resonance that communicates on a deeper and more emotional level... Spare, understated, and perhaps a masterpiece."
Following from the commercial success of his previous album Honi Soit, John Cale turned his label SPY Records, which had released singles from Marie et les Garçons, Lester Bangs, and Cale himself between 1977 and 1980, over to Michael Zilkha. Zilkha absorbed SPY Records into his label ZE Records. Meanwhile, Cale had dropped working with a band and was touring extensively as a solo performer. Zilkha suggested Cale do an inexpensive solo album for the ZE label, with Cale alone on piano in the studio. Cale said, "Before the tapes were rolling I had to have everything mapped out. So I would sit in the studio and work out what the structure of the piece was, then start the tape and off we went." Cale had previously attempted this method as the arranger of Nico's 1969 album The Marble Index. The only track that features a full backing band is "Changes Made", with Blue Öyster Cult's Allen Lanier playing lead guitar on it. Cale did not want the track to be included on the album, but the record label insisted.
The original version of the instrumental "Mama's Song" featured a recorded excerpt of a telephone call between John Cale and his mother, where she had sung "Ar Lan y Mor" to him. When she was taken ill, Cale decided not to include it on the album, a decision he was later to regret. Also at the time, Cale was working with actor and playwright Sam Shepard on his opera The sad lament of Pecos Bill on the eve of killing his wife. Shepard had sent some poems to Cale, which he then in turn set to music. Cale's then-wife Risé co-wrote the track "Damn Life" and provided the voice for "Risé, Sam and Rimsky-Korsakov", while Cale's first wife Betsey Johnson took the photo on the album's cover. The song "(I Keep A) Close Watch" is a re-recording of the version originally found on 1975's Helen of Troy and was released as a single in both the UK and Europe in October 1982.
Cale described his mood while making Music for a New Society as "grotesque." In an interview with Melody Maker shortly after the album's release, Cale was quoted as saying "That album was agony. It was like method acting. Madness. Excruciating. I just let myself go. It became a kind of therapy, a personal exorcism. The songs are mostly about regret and misplaced faith." In What's Welsh for Zen?, Cale further commented that "There were some examples where songs ended up so emaciated they weren't songs any more. What I was most interested in was the terror of the moment... It was a bleak record all right, but it wasn't made to make people jump out of windows."
Music for a New Society was first released on vinyl in September 1982 by ZE and Island. In May 1994, Rhino Records reissued the album on CD for the first time, featuring the previously unreleased bonus track "In the Library of Force". On CD, the 58-second instrumental "Mama's Song", which originally featured as a standalone track on the vinyl LP release, was now incorporated into the running time of "(I Keep A) Close Watch". Additionally, the song "Sanctus" is commonly referred to as "Sanities"; the engineer's handwritten title of "Sanctus" was misread, and the track was first named "Santies" on the LP. The CD reissue calls it "Sanities".
Music for a New Society was released to positive reviews by critics, with AllMusic's Mark Deming calling the album "perhaps a masterpiece." In May 2010, Uncut listed Music for a New Society at number 10 in their list of great 'lost' albums, with the review highlighting "Sanities" as the album's centerpiece: "...Over an aloof, majestic keyboard drone and fragmenting percussion, Cale's possessed narration evoked disaster on all fronts, ending with an ominous prediction of terrible things to come, the bleak promise of 'a stronger world, a stronger loving world... to die in.'" However, according to Cale, despite the record being his "best-received ever," the record was a commercial failure.
Twenty years after the album's release, Cale said in Uncut magazine about the album's continued popularity that "Maybe what people are seeing there is the pain involved. People like watching suffering. I just have painful memories of it. There's only so much heroism you can milk from a situation like that. I think it's really passionate, really interested in the humanity of people. It is something I am proud of."