Monday, November 1, 2010

I'd Love to Turn You On #21: John Cale - Paris 1919

Before this all gets completely incoherent, let me say that John Cale's 1973 masterpiece Paris 1919 is a fabulous record that you should own if you love great, classic pop music. And good lyrics. This is one of those rare albums with both rich, thoughtful music and intelligent, thought-provoking words. The arrangements, playing and production are equal to the compositions. It is one of those records that is just special. It's one of those dearly cherished albums that immediately spring to mind when one thinks about these things - desert island discs and so forth. Like Neil Young's Tonight's The Night, Big Star's 3rd or Scott Walker's 4th album, Paris 1919 gives me that magic feeling. I want it to belong to me; it's just special.

In 1967, John Cale was a Welshman in New York, a viola and bass player aggressively exploring the outer limits of noise and minimalism. His sound gave the Velvet  Underground that edge which made them arguably the most influential group of the following decade. And, while for much of his subsequent production and recording career, Cale has maintained a high level of manic abrasiveness, there is little of that to be found on Paris 1919. If this was any other Cale album, our protagonist might be found to be yelling about, oh! the horror of things, but this is 1919 after all; stultified post-colonial grin-and-bear is the "customary thing to say and do." So this time the anger is folded in between cushions of literary references and lush major 7 chords.

I like to see Paris 1919 as a concept album - a narrative that slips in and out of consciousness like a dizzy Bruce Chatwin travelogue with maybe a dash of Proust. We are on a train ride through Europe, after the war. At a time of renewal and hope, just as all this potential was about to be squandered at Versailles (which the title surely refers to), there is a sense of innocence and foreboding. After all, with all that grizzly Grand Guignol slaughter we had just witnessed still fresh in our minds, among the calm of this journey there is a creeping sense of menace. And, perhaps with the roundabout lyrics betraying a hero after too much opium or absinthe, the half-remembered, half-understood lyrics make this one of the most compelling song-cycles of the era.

Paris 1919 opens with a rollicking dream of “A Child's Christmas in Wales” (Dylan Thomas is the first of several quoted men of letters in this revolving novella). It's one of the "rockers" on the LP but that doesn't mean the subtle erudition escapes him. Splendid lines about "murdered oranges" and the whole "cattle graze bolt uprightly, seducing down the door," like everything on this LP continue to bewilder and delight me on every listen. Next up are two master classes in songwriting: “Hanky Panky Nohow” and “The Endless Plain of Fortune” - one of Cale's greatest ever tracks. This stuff is just breathtaking. And then there is “Andulacia,” another stop on the train journey (this time in Spain) and the tenderest love song on the album. Ending side one (or CD part one, if you will), “Macbeth” appears to be another frenzied fever dream, specifically Shakespearean but channeled through a Glam-era bonfire of pounding drums and slide guitar. This is the only track that sounds remotely like the band that is actually on this LP - Little Feat. 

One side two, the quirkily macabre, self-consciously cultivated “Graham Greene” is sandwiched between three of the best, most beguiling songs in the pop canon. Geography is again the main focus for imagery, the itinerary taking in England and France, with daydreams drifting all the way from Norway to Africa, the church and the spoils of war. The great title track is part-jolly, part-terrifying with stunning “Eleanor Rigby”-style strings. With “Half Past France,” Cale airs his feelings of exhaustion and dislocation through the eyes of an Edwardian gentleman, and even manages to get a dig in at Lou Reed. “Antarctica Starts Here” ends the album with Cale assuming a dangerous sotto voce over blissful descending chords. The final line of the album is one the best - "the anaesthetic wearing off...Antarctica starts here."

Paris 1919 is more than just a pop album, it is more like a novel. Or maybe a fine wine.


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