John Cale - Paris 1919 - Classic Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

John Cale - Paris 1919

by Kevin Orton Rating:10 Release Date:1973-02-25
John Cale - Paris 1919
John Cale - Paris 1919

While critics and hipsters have long been content to drop his name, I have yet to meet anyone who embraces John Cale with fanatical devotion. His work tends to be more admired than adored. As the artists Cale associated with grew in popularity, Cale’s profile and prestige rose as well. And yet, he still remains ridiculously underrated. Without a doubt, he cut some amazing albums in the 70’s, many of which featured Chris Spedding, Brian Eno and moonlighting members of Roxy Music.

By all accounts, Cale’s most “accessible” and most critically acclaimed album is 1973’s Paris 1919. If it sounds like Little Feat mixed with the UCLA Symphony Orchestra, it was. And yes, that's Lowell George on lead guitar. Lyrically, however, it was anything but accessible. Cryptic allusions and references abound, from the Versailles Conference to Dunkirk and the Spanish Civil War. Literary references further lined Cale’s lyrical shelves. Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas, and Graham Greene to name a few. Paris 1919’s songs are populated with field marshals, the ghosts of dead soldiers, decadently dilapidated movie stars and fallen nations. Hardly the stuff of Rock & Roll. In fact, it’s easy to write it all off as pretentious. Cale himself best summed up the album as, “an example of the nicest ways of saying something ugly.”  Yet, beneath the lush orchestrations and heady historical and literary references, Paris 1919 is a deeply felt and personal album. Cale’s gruff baritone uncharacteristically vulnerable throughout.

Contrary to the title, the album kicks off in Wales, not France. Lyrically, ‘Child’s Christmas in Wales’ is much more than a mash-up of Dylan Thomas poems. Cale mines Thomas’ imagery to paint a stunningly nostalgic portrait of his own childhood in Wales. Behind the arcane wordplay is a deeply personal song about growing up. “With mistletoe and candle green to Halloween we go,” Cale sings in a shy baritone. A lyric that sets the scene for an ambitious travelogue of an album. One that seems hell-bent on running away from home.

While a gentle lullaby on the surface, ‘Hanky Panky Nohow’ hints at darker concerns. “Nothing frightens me more than religion at my door,” Cale confesses. To be honest, I haven’t the foggiest notion what this song is about. But its haunting as hell. At best, it seems to allude to religion, intolerance and sexual repression. Beyond that, all I know is that it’s a quiet plea for sanity in a mad world.

‘The Endless Plain of Fortune’ is a heady mouthful for a song title. And true to the title, its epic in scope. Featuring a cast of enigmatic characters named Segovia, Old Taylor, Martha, and Amanda. As for what it all means, “Even with loaded dice, it’s a gold that eats the heart away and leaves the bones to dry.” Elsewhere, the melodic, ‘Andalucia’ references “Castles and Christians” but underneath all the geography lies a mysterious song pining for love, long lost.

If the gorgeous orchestrations and impressionistic lyricism lull the listener into a reverie, ‘MacBeth’ unceremoniously storm troops in to overturn the tables. With its driving, ‘Spirit In The Sky’ beat, Cale sarcastically address the title character in Shakespeare’s most violent play. While Cale is never direct, this one mercilessly tackles betrayal. Whether his ire is directed at himself or another, is anyone’s guess. And I think that’s intentional on Cale’s part.

Despite being one of the more obtuse songs on the album, ‘Paris 1919’ is also the punchiest number with a catchy chorus in, “You’re a ghost la la la”. Despite any references to the Versailles Treaty, the first line is most telling, “She makes me so unsure of myself.”

The snidely oblique, ‘Graham Greene’ seems to take pot shots at social climbing while the meditative, ‘Half Past France’ shifts through time from deceased WWI soldier heading home, to perhaps Cale himself, wondering what awaits him at the end of his journey.

The album ends with a “paranoid great movie queen” straight out of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. Cale tentatively whispering the lyrics as opposed to singing them. “Her schoolhouse mind has windows now, where handsome creatures come to watch, the anesthetic wearing off, Antarctica starts here.”

What a way to end a record.

Subsequent reissues include a revealing outtake in, ‘Burnt Out Affair’. A song which might serve as a code-breaking device for the lyrical cyphers Cale’s laid down throughout Paris 1919. What emerges is a story of not only love, but childhood lost. Cale telling you his secrets and troubles via the language of metaphor and allusion. As opposed to 1-2-4- “My baby done left me.”   

On subsequent releases, Cale would be far less obscure. 1974’s Fear would follow, with a far more direct and confrontational approach. Throughout the rest of his career, Cale would never repeat Paris 1919. In fact, he consciously went in the opposite direction. His work becoming ever more raw and edgy, culminating in the scathing live album Sabotage in 1979. All of which should give you some indication of just how special Paris 1919 is. A baroque, Art Rock masterpiece.

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