This is Jacques Brel’s first EP, released in 1955. This, however is not Brel’s first recording – nor is it his first released record. A handful of radio recordings exist, as well as a number of 78rpm records, all of which are among the rarest Brel collectables out there.
In Brel’s first releases, we see a pattern emerging – and the songs on this EP form the blueprints of many themes that emerge throughout Brel’s career, in particular “Grand Jacques” and “Le Diable (Ca Va)”.
Starting with ‘Sur La Place’ (‘In The Square’), the narrator describes a scene in which a young girl sings and dances in the town square, and the people of the town – at first curious about the spectacle – eventually “close their windows, like a door between the living and the dead” in order to block her out and remain ignorant to her joy so that they aren’t reminded about how happy they were when they were young. Taken in the context of the song’s chorus, the song could be read to be about the oppressive nature of the church, which has repressed people’s emotions to the point in which they shun those expressing the humanistic tendencies of love, happiness and joy.
In the verses of “Grand Jacques”, Brel sings of religion, war and love, before reminding himself that he should not speak about such subjects due to his lack of experience. He ends the song by noting that it’s too easy for people to pretend to know about these things. I often cite this as Brel’s “blueprint” song as it lays out the themes that became crucial throughout his catalogue, and would be revisited many times. The song questions the nature of confessions, the celebration of war and nationalism, and the notion that love is eternal – before concluding that it’s easier for people to pretend that they know about these concepts rather than to expose their weaknesses and admit that they are unfamiliar.
In “Okay (The Devil), Brel sings from the perspective of the Devil who has come to earth and found great pleasure in seeing that a lot of people will be going to hell. The song begins with an atmospheric, spoken-word introduction which sets the scene for the rest of the piece in a surprising way. The introduction’s slow tempo and descending woodwind notes, coupled with its haunting lyrics, soon gives way to a fast-paced jazz melody as the listener is told how excited that the devil is to see that humankind is heading on a destructive and sinful route straight to hell.
The majority of the song is sung from the perspective of the devil, who is revelling in his observations of sin and destruction, and the song’s dark themes can be seen as a precursor to gothic music – there are certainly hints of Brel in the lyrics of Nick Cave.
The EP ends with ‘Le Haine’ (‘The Hate’), which details the transition between love for a person and hatred of them. It contains fantastically bitter lyrics, in which the narrator discusses the lengths that he will go to spite and take revenge on his former lover. This includes: turning to prostitutes, praying for their misfortune, screaming unflattering songs about them, and referring to them as a “decommissioned lover”. The lyrics are a truly inventive and vivid depiction of hatred.
Click on the song title to view a new, poetic translation of the song.
- ‘Sur la Place’ (‘In The Square’)
- ‘Grand Jacques’
- ‘Ca Va (Le Diable)’ (‘Okay (The Devil)’)
- ‘La Haine’ (‘The Hate’)