Music Features

Overlooked Albums #28: John Cale - Paris 1919

John Cale’s confidence is boundless. Classically trained and possessing a keen intellect, he’s actually driven by intuition, taking bold musical leaps that defy conventional thinking and eschew the beaten path. This Welshman for all seasons has had a long, varied musical career as a classical viola player, avant-garde explorer, Velvet Underground provocateur, producer, and arranger. Paris 1919, his third solo effort, draws from this multifaceted background, adding to the mix well-honed songwriting skills.

Cale had an extraordinary group of musicians behind him. The album was produced by Chris Thomas, whose classical music background matched his. The studio players included members of Little Feat, a band that could change musical styles at the drop of a hat. The album opens with their patterned slide guitar, but it is Cale’s show all the way through.

Child’s Christmas In Wales is imbued with warm nostalgia. A church organ and Cale’s wistful voice evoke purifying rituals, communal prayers, and lost innocence. Songs like these are the most valued by Cale’s fans, but you don’t get a complete picture of the artist without his dark humor. 

The album’s lyrics are cryptic, anchored on the themes of literary creation and wanderlust. It’s the music that makes it a worthwhile journey. At the time, bands like Deep Purple and Procol Harum had played with symphony orchestras, resulting in music that left little room for subtlety. Cale avoids that pitfall on songs like Hanky Panky Nohow and The Endless Plain Of Fortune. The latter features grave cellos in counterpoint with sawing high strings, yet this polyphony is used to heighten the song’s drama, not to smother it.

Andalucia sounds like a Spanish air played with steel-stringed instruments, but it works. A fetching melody and courtly love lyrics make the song one of the album’s highlights. Macbeth breaks the spell with a hard-driving brontosaurus beat. It’s a glam rocker that could fit easily as a Roy Wood album track. It has my favorite line: “Alas for poor Macbeth/He found a shallow grave/ But better than a painful death/And quicker than his dying breath.”

The title song brings to mind the Paris Peace Conference held there after World War I, a crucial moment in history when the world map was redrawn but little else changed. There are some references to it in the song, but the approach is more personal. The singer deals with an annoying ghostly visitor, who casually appears from the clock across the hall. The low strings have the lead here, giving the song a stately feel that transports us to another time and place. You won’t find better songs about time warps.

Graham Greene has the flavor of British colonial times. The band makes the most of a playful reggae beat, and Cale sings with a sly Jamaican accent. All the same, it portraits a frail world that crumbles before our eyes. 

Half Past France is a meditation presented as a playlet. A passenger on a train looks out a window, pensive, while everyone sleeps around him. It’s a moment for self-examination: even well-travelled men who enjoy the good life yearn for home. 

Antarctica Starts Here, the album’s closer, is sung in a low, brittle voice. The lyrics are about a fading Hollywood beauty, but the music’s tempo suggests last rites. It’s an intriguing piece, with a jumble of images that beg the listener’s participation to connect them at will. This open-ended approach is used throughout the album and is one reason fans like me keep going back to its nine tracks.

Paris 1919 was not a chart success, none of Cale’s albums have been. Few of us care or remember what was on the charts back then. Cale never attached himself to fads anyway -- his music is meant for the ages. This, being his best collection of songs, has become a perennial favorite. In recent years, he has performed the full album live. If he does it again, don’t miss the chance. You’ll be in for a treat.