The brilliant Belgian dazzles with a chanson record that is more than just beautiful poetry
Having reviewed a mountain’s worth of albums from across the world over the course of the last 16 months, it is fair to say that there have been a fair number of occasions in which I have been tasked with reviewing an album that is not in my mother tongue that is lyrically-driven. Whilst the internet fortunately allows me to get an estimated translation of the original lyrics, the very nature of translating a text in this way often removes the allure and deft touch with which an artist originally intended to carry meaning across. Arguably the most lyrically-driven genre out there is chanson music, as at its core chanson is effectively French-language satire and poetry set to music. As a non-French speaker there are a small handful of chanson albums, in which my inability to understand the lyrics in no way bothers me. Jacques Brel’s 1968 album J’arrive is a perfect example of this.
“...Brel’s transmission of feelings seems like an intentional move to convey the full gamut of emotions that are part of the human experience of being conscious.”
Though known for his lyrical genius, Brel’s eleventh studio album leaves me without a desperate appetite to translate his lyrics and instead with a rather strong urge to learn the French language. The way in which he sings makes me feel like every syllable has been intensely thought out, and to truly understand its beauty one must have a deep understanding of French. Whilst I might be tempted to rant and rave about the almost magnetic attraction that Brel’s voice has upon me, that is not to say that this album is not filled with instrumentation that I am not enamoured by too. Brel’s voice isn’t seductive in an overtly sexy way. Rather his voice is comforting like that of a parent singing a lullaby to a child. For my money, Brel’s greatest gift, aside from his supposed lyrical erudition, is his capacity to perfectly match the tone of his voice to the musical composition that sits behind him. In that parent-like way, I find myself unconditionally trusting him to take me on a journey and land me there safely – namely the journey of life’s infinite range of emotions. Whether it is melancholy, nostalgia or optimism, all experienced at different points listening to this album, Brel’s transmission of feelings seems like an intentional move to convey the full gamut of emotions that are part of the human experience of being conscious.
An adjective that is most appropriate to describe this album is theatrical. Brel feels like a true performer. I can perfectly imagine him prancing across a stage living each beat of the music through powerful facial expressions and general physicality. Of course, my perception of him as a true showman comes from the rip-roaring instrumentation featured on the record. The riveting pace of the accordion that sounds on tracks such as La Bière, helped by the impassioned beating of the drum, make this theatrical feel almost inescapable. Other high-energy tracks like the gloriously cheeky and cheerful orchestral composition Comment tuer l'amant de sa femme quand on a été élevé comme moi dans la tradition and the strings and horns that accompany the invigorating opener on the title-track J’arrive make for incredibly entertaining listening. As much as I love these songs, none quite compare to Vesoul. The ever-accelerating track in its intensity and passion in itself is reflective of the album as a whole, in that it takes the listener on a voyage where they cannot help but feel alive. There are other beautiful, slower paced songs which serve their purpose by allowing for a sense of respite from Brel’s emotional extravaganza such as L’Ostendaise, Je suis un soir d'été and L'Éclusier. For me, those suave tracks are simply a sign of Brel’s multi-dimensionalism and demonstrate his almost unique ability to keep a non-French speaker hooked on chanson.