This is Jacques Brel’s second ‘album’, released on 10″ 33.3 rpm in 1957. The album also goes by the name “Quand On N’a Que L’amour”.
Here we see Brel move on from his initial folk-esque phase, to one in which he moves towards jazz and lush string arrangements (as on ‘J’en Appelle’). The title song would become one of Brel’s best-known and most covered songs, used as a symbol of French unity comparable to the use of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ in the English-speaking world. Most notably, the song was used in the remembrance ceremony for the victims of the Paris 2015 terrorist attacks. The song and album was awarded the Academie Charles Cros “Grand Prix du Disque” 1957, the premier award for French music.
The lyrics on this album continue to comment on morality, and we see the introduction of the Brelian ‘twist’ – which sees the narrative of a song progress in a certain direction, before diverting in the final stanzas (often changing the meaning of the song to relate directly to the listener or towards himself).
This can be seen on the song ‘Les Pieds Dans Le Ruisseau’ (‘Feet In The Stream’), which at first seems to be a throwaway but pleasant tune with a literal meaning. Brel tells us about writing words “pretty words of my own” in the waters with his feet, and watching what he believes to be a lost lovers’ letter float by, before changing the nonchalant attitude around as he sees himself reflected in the water in the last line: “I see my reflection – I see an idiot”, which leads the listener to reassess the words they have just heard and wonder whether the previous stanzas are related to the narrator’s story in a different way to which we had previously thought. Is the love letter one that the narrator had cast away? Are the words he’s writing in the waters the name of his lost love?
Other highlights on this album are the operatic “L’air De La Betise’ (‘The Aria Of Stupidity’), which is a particularly good example of Brel’s dark humour.
The whores – the real ones
Are the ones who make us pay
Not before but after
Another Brel trope is introduced on this album – the theme of young lovers separated. Brel often sang about young lovers, with the age ’20’ being frequently used. This can mostly be attributed to the sound of the French word for 20 being particularly suited to singing. Here is a poetically translated excerpt from the song ‘Heureux’ (‘Happy’):
Happy – the lovers separated –
Who’ll meet tomorrow
But don’t know it yet
Happy – the lovers separate.
Happy – the lovers who are spared –
And who’s 20-year-old strength
Is of no use, but for loving right
Happy – the lovers who are spared.
This album is an unmissable album in Brel’s early catalogue, and was pivotal in him becoming the iconic singer that he is today.
Click on the song title to find out more about the songs.
- ‘Quand On N’a Que L’amour’ (‘When We Only Have Love’)
- ‘Qu’avons-nous Fait Bonnes Gens?’ (‘What Have We Done, Good People?’)
- ‘Les Pieds Dans Le Ruisseau’ (‘Feet In The Stream’)
- ‘Pardons’ (‘Sorry’)
- ‘La Bourree Du Celebataire’ (‘The Batchelor’s Bourree’)