Graded on a Curve:
John Cale,
Paris 1919

I like to play hard to get. You know, listen to an album for a while before I ask it out on a date. Sure, there are exceedingly rare exceptions—thunderbolts of instantaneous amour that make me lose my composure and babble on about how wonderful an album is, and how I want to take it home to meet my family, and go out and surreptitiously shop around for a ring. This was what happened the first time I heard John Cale’s 1973 LP Paris 1919.

The Welsh Cale will forever be chiefly remembered for his work with The Velvet Underground, but he was playing experimental music—you know, the usual, like an 18-hour piano marathon of a piece by Erik Satie—with the likes of John Cage and La Monte Young before he joined the Velvets, and has recorded in a mad variety of styles since then. I’m loath to call any one a genius, because I prefer to reserve the title for myself, but for John Cale I’ll make an exception. He’s put out many an amazing and influential record—and produced just as many for other artists—and you never know what he’ll do next.

Take Paris 1919. The LPs that bookend it—namely 1974’s harder rocking Fear and 1971’s more experimental and classically-oriented The Academy in Peril—don’t bear the slightest resemblance to Paris 1919, or to one another for that matter. I love both albums for their unpredictability, but most people, myself included, consider Paris 1919 Cale’s masterpiece. The reason why is simple—it’s chockablock with sublime and lovely songs that you’re guaranteed to fall in love with, just as I did.

Cale may have quit The Velvet Underground because he didn’t share Lou Reed’s ambition to become a pop star at any price, but that doesn’t mean Cale was uninterested in exploring pop’s outer suburbs. Paris 1919 is proof positive that Cale had a pop side as well—he simply dressed it up and presto, instant baroque pop. Or art rock, although I’m hesitant to describe Paris 1919 as such because the LP includes only one tune that even vaguely resembles rock, namely “Macbeth.”

The opening cut, “Child’s Christmas in Wales,” bears a title Cale filched from fellow Welshman and poet Dylan Thomas, and it’s lovely beyond measure. Cale’s organ, sideman Lowell George’s piercing riffs on the slide guitar, and Cale’s elegiac vocals make for an intoxicating mix. As for his lyrics, they’re sublime nonsense; he sings about “10 murdered oranges” and “seducing down the door.” After that he plays a wonderful organ solo, one of the best this side of “Whiter Shade of Pale,” while sideman Sam Hayward keeps things moving on the drums. As for follow-up “Hanky Panky Nohow,” which includes the great lines, “Nothing frightens me more/Than religion at my door,” it somehow manages to be even lovelier and more melodically haunting than its predecessor. And the lyrics! I contend right here and right now that no pop artist, with the possible exception of Bob Dylan, has ever written a line as funny and cryptic as “the cows that agriculture won’t allow.” In short this is one of the most perfectly constructed pop songs you’ll ever hear, and if you don’t agree you’re one of those cows that farmers don’t want on their property.

“The Endless Plain of Fortune” is great too, thanks to its beguiling melody and Cale’s entrancing vocals, to say nothing of the contributions of The UCLA Symphony Orchestra, which takes the song out with a big, and I mean really big, orchestral flourish. This one has an elegiac feel to it, and rather reminds me of a really great Moody Blues song that doesn’t exist because they were too dumb to write it. Meanwhile, “Andalucía” opens with some lovely guitar and is a beautiful love song on which Cale hits the high notes on the choruses while the rest of the band is content to sit back and keep things quiet, although George comes through with the occasional lovely bit of country-influenced guitar work, which doesn’t sound like it should work but does.

Next up is “Macbeth,” a kick-ass rave-up that sounds like Cale fronting Little Feat, because that’s exactly what it is; both Clayton and George were in Little Feat, and the resulting song sounds like a Lowell George number, smells like a Lowell George number, and I can’t believe that he didn’t get a songwriting credit on the tune. And while it’s great, I have a problem with it: namely that its hard and up-tempo boogie is out of place—indeed jarringly out of place—amongst the contemplative, pretty, and relatively slow songs that make up Paris 1919.

As for the title track, it sounds like a piece of chamber music, what with Cale singing “You’re a ghost/La la la la la la la la” to the accompaniment of his viola, some strings, and a persistent horn. He sings about his iron drum but never plays it; instead the song falls into a morning reverie complete with chirping birds. Meanwhile “Graham Greene” is a chipper, reggae-inflected number about having breakfast with the late English thriller writer. The piano dominates, the song’s rhythm is as exotic as its percussion, and some horns come in here and there. It’s all very merry on the surface, but there’s an undercurrent of deadly intrigue, which is what Greene specialized in as a novelist and which Cale expresses with lines like, “chopping down the people where they stand.” That sense of intrigue is repeated on the deliriously lovely “Half Past France,” where Cale sings about being on a train somewhere between Dunkirk and Paris. He seems to be engaged in some obscure and dangerous mission, singing, “But from here on it’s got to be/A simple case of them or me/If they’re alive then I am dead/Pray God and eat your daily bread.” The song reaches its acme on the lush and otherworldly choruses, where Cale and a chorus sing, “We’re so far away/Floating in this bay/We’re so far away from home/Where we belong.”

As for “Antarctica Starts Here,” it opens to some simple organ, and Cale proceeds to whisper the vocals. The song is about the aging and mentally deteriorating actress played by Joan Crawford in Billy Wilder’s 1950 film Sunset Boulevard. (It’s also a variation on a similar theme by Lou Reed in the song “New Age.”) “The paranoid great movie queen,” sings Cale, “Sits idly fully armed/The powder and mascara there/A warning light for charm.” Me, I’ve always loved the song for its hushed tone, and that mellow organ, and Cale’s wonderfully elegiac vocals. Mid-song the band proceeds to play a divine interlude, and Cale then returns to whisper, “Antarctica starts here.” What he means by those cryptic words I don’t know, but I suspect that Cale’s Antarctica is one of the mind, and a manifestation of the cold and infinitely white isolation of the mental ward.

Cale is one of those quintessential characters, easily bored, who will produce music in almost any vein to keep himself interested. Experimentation is a bracing tonic for him and sometimes a bracing tonic for us as well, because you never know what you’re going to get. It might be Paris 1919, or something far more experimental and difficult on the ears. But we all need to try something new now and again, the way I did with Paris 1919, with which I remain very much in love. Which brings me full circle to a point I intended to make at the beginning of my review but forget; namely, that I’m dating Paris 1919 now and our relationship is exclusive, so I advise you to find another John Cale album to fall in love with or you might just end up with a shiner, bub.


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