We delve into the world of chanson music, with this strange yet compellingly mysterious and melancholic effort from the Monegasque poet and musician
Léo Ferré deserves one accolade despite anything else I might say about this album - this is hands down the strangest yet most compelling albums I’ve come across during my time searching for an album from every country around the world, and I’ve listened to Mongolian throat-singing, Japanese folk-rumba fusion, and Vanuatuan water drumming. All of which are yet to appear as reviews, so that’s something to look forward to. Keep ‘em hooked, Steve. Anyway, back to Léo. It is a dramatic album, full of unusual beats and twists and turns. It even turned out to be the first album of music to contain whale song as a component within it, so points for innovation all round, I guess. Another seemingly odd and unusual aspect of the album is that Monsieur Ferré is often speaking over the music, rather than singing. That might seem unusual, but it is a fairly common style in the world of chanson music, and indeed the style was popularised by the Belgian chanson auteur, Jacques Brel, alongside the French rabble-rouser and taboo buster, Serge Gainsbourg, both of whom are far better known in the UK, even if you’ve just heard the names mentioned by someone at a house party you barely know showing off about their taste in French music. Ferré was himself something of an iconoclast and rebellious outsider; he was a staunch pacifist and communist. These anti-establishment beliefs, alongside his vehement opposition to the war in Algeria, ostracised him from mainstream French society initially, but also gained him a large following among the young protesters of May 1968.
“Ferré’s lyrics are hugely political, sensitive, beautiful, shocking and poetic, often within the same song. They paint pictures of sordid Parisian clubs, of the injustice of society, of death and of life, of lost friendships and of failing domestic relationships. The lyrics are dark and nihilistic – the title of the album means ‘there is nothing left’, after all.”
Despite this, over the years he gained a cult following, and now Ferré is on a par with those chanson innovators in France, despite never having reached the same level of name recognition elsewhere. To an extent, I understand why. Looking like a cross between Nicolas Sarkozy and the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz, Ferré’s style is, despite his Monegasque roots, particularly French, and having watched some of his live recordings on YouTube, I can’t deny there’s something incredibly magnetic about his stage presence. His wild mane of hair, his crumpled, pensive face, his vivacious, Gene Wilder-esque eyes all draw you into a fascinating experience. That said, there’s something missing, I find, but it isn’t the fault of Ferré. Occasionally during this project, Danny and I have listened to music that, despite it being in languages we don’t understand, the music has transcended language and become universal. Examples of this would be the excellent Ágætis Byrjun by Sigur Rós, Mustt Mustt by perhaps the best vocalist to ever walk this Earth, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and Miss Perfumado by the remarkable Cesária Évora. Il n’y a Plus Rien doesn’t quite reach that level, though it is in some ways a remarkable and superlative listening experience. Unfortunately, my GCSE French doesn’t quite carry me through to understanding everything that Ferré talks about, though I understood snippets, and because it is such a lyrically focused album, I felt like I was missing out on the full experience. Having since found out what the lyrics were and looked up translations, I was right. Ferré’s lyrics are hugely political, sensitive, beautiful, shocking and poetic, often within the same song. They paint pictures of sordid Parisian clubs, of the injustice of society, of death and of life, of lost friendships and of failing domestic relationships. The lyrics are dark and nihilistic – the title of the album means ‘there is nothing left’, after all. This despairing mood is conveyed by the music, but it is better conveyed with the lyrics, and I just wish I am able to understand it fully as it should be appreciated.
My favourite song on the album is either Richard or Ne Chantez Pas La Mort, both of which demonstrate some great vocal talent by Ferré, and still contain some elements of his talk-singing style, with his ominous and foreboding backing tracks. All of the songs are worth listening to, and even Night and Day, the track I liked the least, reveals itself when you understand the lyrics. Ferré is sometimes considered a poet first and a musician second, and I can understand why. However, don’t let this put you off. The music itself, and Ferré’s own unusual yet good voice is enough to make this album worth your time, as musically it is very interesting, and it creates exactly the mood it wants to. It is dark, brooding and mournful, yet not without its moments of levity, drama, and a lighter tone, and even if you don’t understand French, you can still get something out of the album, as I did, because the quality of the instrumentation, and the emotion in his voice are enough to carry the album into lofty heights.