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 Môr" 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 "Close Watch" is a re-recording of the version originally found on 1975's Helen of Troy but with a shortened titled 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."