Hearing that Jarvis Cocker had recorded an album of chanson covers in their original French, inspired by Wes Anderson’s new film French Dispatch, I was slightly worried. Would they fall into the trap of occupying that space that Anderson’s detractors have staked out for him: a grating mix of twee whimsy and knowing pastiche? The theatricality of Cocker’s singing style at the helm of Pulp didn’t allay those concerns.
I am glad to report, however, that I needn’t have worried. These songs are less pastiche than loving tribute, Cocker for the most part opting for sincerity rather than smirk. They shine a light on a genre that has never really had its due on this side of the Channel. It’s strange really, given the gusto with which we’ve embraced French cinema, style and literature. Perhaps this album will go some way to redressing that.
The twelve songs chosen here do a great job of showcasing both how rich and varied that genre is and Cocker’s strengths as a performer. The last remaining remnants of my A-Level French meant I was able to understand the odd snippets of lyrics, but for the most part it is Cocker and his co-singers’ delivery that do the heavy lifting in helping the listener understand the songs.
At times, like on ‘Elle et moi’, he affects an almost whispered, sing/speak delivery. Sometimes he launches into an almost tortured, full bore vocal style; elsewhere, he seems louche and swinging, the model of Gallic cool. Interestingly, the extent to which he adopts a French accent varies from song to song, suiting the mood of each song. Throughout, he oozes the sense of a master in control of their art. The theatricality of his delivery, which can be distancing, is dialled down here. It remains strong enough to sell his performances but not so strong the listener is constantly reminded that he is adopting various disguises.
It helps that his source material is so rich. Opener ‘Dans ma chambre’, with its soaring strings and rattlesnake drums clicking along like a trotting horse, would be at home in a spaghetti western. ‘Contact’ is a slice of psychedelia, repleat with echoing vocals and sitar. ‘La Tendresse’, meanwhile, is a sumptuous slice of chamber pop. While there is an overarching aesthetic and sensibility to this set, there is great variety within it. The songs are by turns mournful, joyous, lovelorn, and a multitide of emotions in between. The production manages to evoke the 60s and 70s without sounding dated or like a lazy imitation, and the lushness of the arrangements helps turn the songs into creative worlds the listener can get lost in.
My prior knowledge of the source material was limited. Outside of the work of George Brassens and some of Serge Gainsbourg’s songs, I had had little exposure to it. So I’m not in a position to comment on how faithful these versions are, or how they compare quality-wise with their inspirations. But in their own right, they are a beautiful and bewitching collection and a reminder of how evocative the best pop music can be. It’s great to have Jarvis back on such commanding form. I also hope that the songs lead listeners to explore the work of the artists who originally wrote them. They certainly had that effect on me!
Words by Will Collins.