John Cale - Paris 1919 - Review
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critics' view

At the Paris Peace Conference, 1919, the humiliated German aggressors were put in their place by the UK, the US, France, Italy and 28 others, as all sorts of treaties were signed and The League of Nations was formed to ensure there would never be another World War. Yep, that went well. Whilst this LP doesn’t explicitly linger on that subject, Cale described the title as being “an example of the nicest ways of saying something ugly.” He’s an impressionist of the highest order. This is an album which is best analysed in your dreams.

Musically, it’s clear by this stage that the adventurous Welshman is refusing to be pigeon-holed, as he continues to surprise folks with his career twists and turns. I mean, you’ve only got to look at him staring back at you wryly on that front-cover to know he’s beyond frivolity or trend. His predilection for the avant-garde is truly abandoned on this springtime ’73 offering, as he explores his inner Randy Newman. Artsy and poetic, the set is graceful from beginning to end and never grates, despite some real MOR vibes from tracks such as “Macbeth” and “Andalucia”.

There are moments to savour all over, be those from lyrical snips, or invigorating swells of cello. Early doors, on the curiously-titled “Hanky Panky Nohow”, I’m endeared to the singer when he serves up “Nothing frightens me more than religion at my door”. I also quite like the idea of “elephants that sing”. More worryingly, there are “cows that agriculture won't allow”.

For me, the big standout on side 1 is track 3, “The Endless Plain of Fortune” which ebbs and flows gently and hypnotically, before tidally overwhelming anything and everything in its path. With those strings and horns in full effect, it’s quite the hi-fi experience. Frankly I have no idea what’s going on – Old Taylor, Field Marshall, Martha, Segovia and Amanda, who are these people? It seems to be shrouded in mystery and maybe it’s better that way; these are your lead characters – make your own plot.

On side 2, “Paris 1919” is a goodie – a pseudo-classical pop production in the spirit of “Eleanor Rigby” with a catchy sing-a-long chorus: “You're a ghost la-la-la-la-la-la”. I can’t escape the thought that Cale is subtly re-enacting the perceived belittling of Germany. In the very next song, “Graham Greene”, the line “chopping down the people where they stand” seems to carry this same theme. In any event, any song which manages to include “Enoch Powell” and “the hounds of hell” in the same set of lyrics is alright by me. As an added bonus it’s played in a Paul-Simon-Reggae-Style, with a complex rhythm structure that would give even the best Tuff Gong innovators a run for their money.

And so we come to the album’s crowning glory, the elegiac “Half Past France”, where, I imagine, we Europeans are lamenting the heavy toll that has been paid as a result of the war mongers’ insanity. I put myself in the mind of a soldier from Dundee – and I feel his torment at the incessant barbarism: “From here on it's got to be, a simple case of them or me, if they're alive then I am dead, pray God and eat your daily bread”. Who could fail to be moved by the homesickness? “We're so far away, floating in this bay, we're so far away from home, where we belong.

Only a philistine could deny the beauty within these pieces. “Paris 1919” – the album – was an artistic triumph.

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