Jacques Brel – No. 12

First cover:

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Second cover:

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This 1962 live EP is taken from the the album A l’Olympia ’61 was Brel’s last EP to be released on the Phillips label. It came with two very distinct covers, as you can see from above…

The tracks on this EP cover subjects such as class (on Les Bourgeois); the negative affects of humanity on animals, the world and other humans (Les Singes); the drunkenness, lust, and pretentiousness of hangers-on you find in nightclubs (Les Paumes du Petit Matin); and unrequited love (Madeleine). Some very deep issues for an EP!

“Les Bourgeois” shows a growing sense of politicisation in Brel’s work, with his attention focusing on members of the working classes going out, getting drunk, and jeering at members of the middle and upper classes, until they become the middle classes (and the ones being taunted). An interesting technique Brel employs in the chorus of this song is cutting off the end of the lyric, which encourages the listener to apply the word “con” to complete the rhyme. “Con” can be roughly translated to English as “cunt”.

“The Singes” is one of Brel’s most interesting songs, in my opinion. Here he sings of greatness of the world before the “hairless asses” (humans) were introduced to the environment, and the negative affects that have been seen since then. The verses follow a pattern of Brel describing an idyllic scene, before commenting on how this has been spoiled by mankind in its quest for “civilisation” – culminating in the chorus in which the narrator (which we can assume to be Brel himself) humourously tries to distance himself from the actions of other humans with the weak excuse that he isn’t one of them; they’re merely some thuggish occupants of his “neighbourhood”.

One of my favourite verses sees the tempo rise and the crescendo build as Brel changes the tone from tongue-in-cheek to serious, with the lines:

They invented all the instruments of torture,

The electric chair, the Nazi gas chambers,

Bombs full of napalm, bombs that are atomic,

And that’s since they’ve had “civility”…

(Disclaimer: this is from my poetic translation, which keeps the overall tone and around 80% of the lyrics intact but employs artistic license to aid with rhyme and rhythm.)

In “Les Paumes du Petit Matin”, Brel sings of the tragedy and pretentiousness of the hangers-on at bars and in nightclubs, who are full of big schemes and ideas that never come to fruition because (presumably) they are too busy partying and chasing women. This is a very relatable song to me, and I’m sure everyone knows at least on person like the characters Brel sings about – those who talk about “poems they’ve never read”, books that they’re working on (but never finish), and boast about “lovers they’ve never had”. The music is soft jazz, the type that conjures up a sense of sophistication which adds to the pretentious nature of the characters that Brel describes. In effect, the characters are hiding behind image, but once this pretension has been moved by a few drinks, their true tragedy is displayed. The brass section added in the bridges liberally borrows from Dario Moreno’s 1961 song Brigitte Bardot.

“Madeleine” is one of Brel’s most-recognised love songs, except that it isn’t a love song at all. In “Madeleine” the narrator finds himself fixated by Madeleine, and has deceived himself into thinking that his love for her is reciprocated. The song sees the narrator at first gleefully waiting for Madeleine, but through the song’s four verses it’s revealed that Madeleine doesn’t show up. Lyrically what’s interesting about this song is the fact that throughout the verses very little changes, however with slight twists to the lyric and the change in Brel’s tone the audience begins to get an idea of the bigger picture of unrequited love. The similarity between verses helps to reinforce the narrator’s delusion when, in the last stanza, he closes by saying that he is still waiting for Madeleine, and that he still intends to tell her that he loves her.


Tracks

Side A:

  • “Les Bourgeois”
  • “Les Singes”

Side B:

  • “Les Paumes du Petit Matin”
  • “Madeleine”

These titles translate as: “The Middle Class”, “The Apes”, “The Lost Ones of the Early Morning” and “Madeleine”.

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