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Album Review

Brel, Jacques – ‘Poetic World of Jacques Brel, The’ – [Philips]

Lord Gravestench   2/12/2020   12-inch, International

Jacques Brel was born in 1929 to a wealthy Belgian family. He moved to Paris as a young man and eventually became a singer and songwriter, achieving fame across French-speaking Europe by the late 50s. Brel is credited with taking the traditional French popular song (or chanson) out of ‘La Vie en Rose’ sentimentality and into more cynical territory rich with wordplay, social satire, and dark humour. Outside of the francophone world he was a cult figure in the 1960s, even captivating a young Scott Walker, who went on to cover many of his songs.

Brel could be pretty grim, but on this 1970 compilation for American audiences you mostly get the lighter side. There is bitterness here, but nearly every song is humorous, or at least playful in approach. Highlights include the mockingly misanthropic ‘Les Singes’ (The Monkeys) (A4) and the evergreen romantic comedy balled ‘Madeleine’ (B1). The bleaker aspects of post-war European existence, dealt with more explicitly in other of Brel’s songs, are present as mere subtexts here while his characters drink, flirt, daydream, and social-climb. However, more sombre moods can be found on ‘Seul’ (Alone) (A6) and ‘La Statue’ (B5).

Some arrangements are more elaborate than others, but the piano is more or less a constant. Brel, of course, has a great set of pipes, whether or not you can understand his words (the LP has helpful side-by-side French and English lyrics). The material on the B-side seems to be live, as there is applause between tracks. Dreamy.

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