Lou Reed might well have eclipsed him in terms of popularity, though John Cale remained a major talent in his own right. As a co-founder of The Velvet Underground, Cale was undoubtedly the most avant-garde and experimental, whose sonic excursions could make the listener either smile or wince, depending on their disposition.
Paris 1919 is one of Cale’s more accessible, though no less exploratory, song-oriented albums and one full of fascinating lyrical ideas over its thirty-one odd minutes. Tracks such as the title song, “Andalucía” and “Graham Greene” provide a hint that one better put on their thinking hat before pressing the play button. Because this is easy listening for intellectuals, if there is such a thing, and not the sort of LP with suburban housewives in mind. Little Feat’s Lowell George and Ritchie Hayward (on guitar and drums respectively) contribute to the backing band, helping to infuse Cale’s melancholic compositions with a morbid tenderness.
And though despite his association with the Velvets, let’s not forget that Cale was an Englishman (or Welshman to be more exact), schooled in musical theory and well versed in literature. So an album such as this shouldn’t come across as too unsurprising.
But it’s not just the ghost of Graham Greene who permeates throughout the record, yet also Dylan Thomas, most notably on opener “Child’s Christmas in Wales”, where Cale interweaves his own boyhood memories with that of the Welsh poet. Cale’s vocals have an Eno-esque quality to them, almost bordering on eccentric, as they do on “Hanky Panky Nohow”, a slightly atmospheric piece on which Cale complains that “Nothing frightens me more/Than religion at my door”, along with other verses that would be enough to keep a psychiatrist analysing his subject for days.
The epic sounding “The Endless Plain of Fortune” is a lyrical novella if there was ever one, while the plaintive and beautiful “Andalucia” is like a poem read to music. “Macbeth” is the most rocking tune of the album, in a Little Feat sort of way, which I guess explains the presence of Lowell George, a musician who truly knew how to light the fires. He puts the UCLA Symphony Orchestra to good use on “Paris 1919”, a sort of “Eleanor Rigby” with a few extra dreamy moments thrown in for good measure. Though instead of relying on George Martin, as The Beatles did, Cale does the arrangements all himself. “Graham Greene” is a slightly reggae oriented tune with a strong English lilt, concerned with toast and cups of tea.
“Half Past France” is a tale told through the eyes of an English soldier, trapped somewhere between “Dunkirk and Paris”, who only wishes to “see his son again”, and trying to make sense of a world gone mad. “Antarctica Starts Here” is like if “Imagine” had of been written by Arthur Rimbaud, full of maudlin, depressing consonants rather than all that uplifting millionaire rock star Utopian bullshit espoused by you know who. Cale’s almost creepy vocals whisper above the instruments, like an apparition in some ancient Celtic Church Cathedral.
Naturally it failed to chart, although who cares about that when most of what does sell is rubbish anyway. Paris 1919 is one of those records that will grow and grow in familiarity until the listener will likely ask why they hadn’t bought it many years before. Poignantly haunting, as well as erudite, if there is one album by Cale you should own, it ought to be this.