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Nonchalance out of the depths

Elke Buhr presents Benjamin Biolay, France's new Serge Gainsbourg

A slightly dragging trip-hop beat crackles auratically. Somewhere, there's a bright droning female voice, while violins surge towards a dramatic crescendo — which arrives as inevitably as tears in the eyes of a beautiful deceiver. Only now is a man's voice audible, so nearby and intimate that it seems to be resonating in your own head. It is not singing, but murmuring: "Comment as-tu pu / Par derrière…" How could you, behind my back? What does he have that I don't?

Benjamin Biolay. All photos © Bruce Weber, courtesy Virgin Records France / EMI

The perennial lament of the jilted lover, packaged here by Benjamin Biolay in soothing French rhymes. "C'est douloureux dedans" is the tune's name, and it gives voice to inner pain. In the process, Biolay hardly spares us the dramatic gestures. "My eyes are filled with blood", we hear in the refrain: "it's contagious, so leave."

Translated from French euphony everyday English, such verses sound rather self pitying. Yet Biolay deserves our pity. The dandy of French pop has just lost one of the most desirable women in France, namely Chiara Mastroianni, daughter of Catherine Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni. Just two years ago, Benjamin and Chiara, the dream pair of the French media, made a recording together, just as Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin had done earlier. Their daughter is now four years old. Yet just before Biolay began work on his current album, the couple broke up.

Today, several months later, in a hotel room where he rather distractedly talks about his new disc, which bears the nonsense title "Trash Yeye", Biolay doesn't want to talk about it. "My life was totally chaotic," he mumbles, nothing more. And such feelings are reflected directly in the music: "The record is meant to be sincere, it's very personal. It's about love, nothing but love. I play a variety of roles, try out various perspectives. But it's all about one thing."

Only his love for his daughter remains relatively cheerful; he sings about her in a light-footed pop song as the princess "Dans la Merco Benz," in the Mercedes Benz. Unsparing, on the other hand, is his description of the world as viewed from the spare room bed to which he was banished during the lovers' quarrel ("La Chambre D'Amis"). We encounter cynicism in "La Garconniere", named for the old French term for the rented room maintained by Parisian husbands for assignations with mistresses. And in the song "Dans Ta Bouche", the despairing lover reaches heights of pitiless self abasement reminiscent of Brel's great "Ne me quitte pas". He aspires to transform his lost love into a giantess, to disappear into her mouth like a dwarf. As Biolay strives through repetitive, minimalist piano sound toward self effacement, the sound resembles an intimate version of rap, one compatible with the French chanson.

Biolay has long specialized in fusing French tradition with the subtleties of Anglo-American pop. Before producing this disc, he spent time in the USA, residing in the rural idyll around Woodstock, home to Neil Young and other wealthy musicians. Pervading his opulently arranged songs are American steel guitar and dry tap dance percussion, flanked by nostalgic samplings and electronic tricks of every kind.

Biolay — who was trained classically on tuba and violin — began his pop career as a producer and composer for other performers. Things really took off in the late 1990s when he collaborated with Keren Ann to compose the comeback album of chanson legend Henri Salvador. In 2002, when Biolay's debut CD "Rose Kennedy" appeared, its sound was so novel within the French pop music scene that critics saw it launching a new trend. "Nouvelle Chanson" was the buzzword that became attached to Biolay and several others. A scene gathered around the term which also became popular in Germany: among its protagonists was Yann Thiersen, who became known through the soundtrack to the film Amélie, not to mention the sweet singer Carla Bruni.

The newest star among them is young chansonnier Vincent Delerm, whose album "Le Piqures d'Araignee" appeared this spring in Germany as well. In his song lyrics, Delerm draws rather ironically on the clichés of "la jolie France", but sounds quite classical in terms of instrumentation, his sounds inoffensive.

With the success of the Nouvelle Chanson, its more novel aspects have vanished from view — and in the meantime, the label simply serves to market new French songs, regardless of tendency. Biolay has come to distance himself from the movement: "With a few exceptions, the people classified as Nouvelle Chanson by the media sound like crap. They are saying, just look, all you have to do is to pick up an accordion and dress like Yves Montand... unbelievable! The French chanson is not a museum. You have to really master it if you want to keep it alive. The French language remains, but apart from that, you need a mix of influences."

Instead, Biolay compares himself to Serge Gainsbourg: a punk in comparison to the classical chanteur. The sound of his new album is not especially punk, even if it offers suitable material. "Trash Yeye" is refined and melancholic, heartrending and bittersweet. And despite all of its skilful sonic doodling, it does sound very much — at least on this side of the Rhine — like what we understand as quality French chanson. Its essence is hardly the accordion but rather the capacity to dwell in the emotional depths while singing nonchalantly of love.


This article originally appeared in the Frankfurter Rundschau on September 10, 2007.

Elke Buhr is journalist and editor at the Frankfurter Rundschau.

Translation: Ian Pepper - let's talk european