Monday, March 27, 2023

The Albums of 1973: John Cale: Paris 1919

Release Date: February 25, 1973

Personnel: John Cale (Vocals, Piano, Guitar); Lowell George (guitar); Wilton Felder (bass, saxophone); Richie Hayward (drums)

Produced by Chris Thomas

Side One: Child's Christmas in Wales; Hanky Panky Nohow; The Endless Plain of Fortune; AndalucĂ­a; Macbeth

Side Two: Paris 1919; Graham Greene; Half Past France; Antarctica Starts Here

A founding member of The Velvet Underground, John Cale left the band in 1968 and went on to a prolific and acclaimed career as a solo artist and producer. Cale's first two solo albums: Vintage Violence and The Academy in Peril, the former an art pop record, while the latter consisted of sonic landscapes. A 1971 collaboration  with Terry Riley, Church of Anthrax, was also composed of soundscapes. Paris 1919 continued in the art pop mode with pristine arrangements, abstract lyrics, and song titles alluding to 20th Century events and figures.

"Child's Christmas in Wales" is the title of the famous Dylan Thomas story. Cale's version is lavishly produced like a post-modern hymn with dense lyrics layered with vague references to peace, the past, conflict, and religion (recurring motifs on the record). "Hanky Panky Nohow" features more surreal imagery with an exquisite string arrangement. 

"The Endless Plain of Fortune" obliquely alludes to the Boer War, a conflict at the start of the 20th Century (1899-1902) which would foreshadow the brutality of the two world wars. Cale's semi-detached phrasing creates an atmosphere akin to floating above the historical chaos. "AndalucĂ­a" paints a portrait, an evocative love song. "Macbeth" is fast paced and more playful, musing on the events described in the play, reimaging the tragic Scot as a psychedelic character from a Michael Moorcock story.

"Paris 1919" is a baroque pop song with no direct references to peace conference that ended The First World War, except that "the continent's just fallen in disgrace" as an absurd romance plays out. References to "the church" may allude Christianity's influence on European history as staccato strings drive the song. "Graham Greene" follows a vaguely calypso rhythm, following an unnamed protagonist rubbing shoulders with political figures - possibly a spy out of a Greene novel.

"Half Past France" seems to take place in the interwar years, maybe following the spirit of a WWI soldier. Cale narrates the song in a sleepy tone, like a lullaby. "Antarctica Starts Here" tells the story of a fading "movie queen" in the vein of Sunset Boulevard. Cale's whispery vocals here adds to the uncanniness of the entire record. 

All nine tracks on Paris 1919 are magnificently constructed and immersive. Cale creates an entire world in each song rooted in the past - viewed through a cryptic lens. 

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