John Cale – Paris 1919
Maybe I don’t really know what they are talking about, but when people use the words “experimental” or “avant-garde” to describe a piece of art, that’s usually the point where I get anxious. Movies are the worst: the 45 minutes spent watching “Wavelength” were painful (is anything going to happen?), and I’m still not 100% sure what was going on in “Last Year at Marienbad”, though at least some things did in fact happen. I’m more willing to give novels a chance, but after three tries, I gave up (probably forever) on reading “Ducks, Newburyport”, and there are others like it.
It should be easier with music, given the length of a typical album, but my dedication to the three-to-four-minute long pop song makes this difficult for me. Plus, anything with these labels that has come to my attention previously was discordant, or noisy, or just odd. I never felt compelled to listen to John Cale because those labels have been attached to him at points in what I now know has been a very varied career.
But I love this record. It’s not at all what I was expecting. His voice is no great treat to listen to, very limited and usually without any hint of emotion (unless sardonic or world-weary count). If you want to apply the label Beatlesesque to this, you won’t get an argument from me. There’s a scope to this, a willingness to jump around the musical palate, that lets it slide comfortably next to “Sgt. Pepper” and its imitators/devotees.
“Child’s Christmas in Wales” is pure pop, like a late autumn Beach Boys, and “Hanky Panky Nohow” prefigures “Morning Phase”-era Beck. “The Endless Plain of Fortune” and “Paris 1919” would sound great with a full orchestra. “Macbeth” rocks hard, a real get-up-and-jump-around song. “Graham Greene” is jaunty with a hint of the islands, the backing track of “Half Past France” feels like southern rock, and “Antarctica Starts Here” has a Carpenters-like easy listening vibe. But he subverts genre norms time and again. That southern rock aspect is remarkably subtle, not in-your-face like a Lynyrd Skynyrd tune, and blended with a dreamy relaxing vibe. And his take on easy listening includes a whispered vocal that defeats casual listening. On top of this, his lyrics are for the most part like poetry, in that way that poetry doesn’t rhyme and makes zero sense.
As a companion to this, I gave Cale’s 2012 album “Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood” a spin, and also loved it. Did I just get lucky and stumble across his two most accessible records? Or do critics call him experimental because they lack the imagination to accept that some artists just don’t fit into a box? I will continue to gather data on John Cale (setting aside his soundtrack work, there look to be around 30 solo and collaborative works to check out), but for now I think it’s clear which camp I fall into.