Brel’s fourth ‘album’, often referred to as “La Valse A Mille Temps”, was released in 1959. It was Brel’s first album to be released after a legendary performance at the Olympia in Paris which brought Brel much critical acclaim.
The album features Brel’s fantastic hit ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ (‘Don’t Leave Me), which went on to become his most covered work in the form of ‘If You Go Away’. The album also includes the popular ‘La Valse A Mille Temps’ (‘The Waltz With A Thousand Beats’), and the controversial ‘Les Flamandes’ (‘Flemish Women’) – which would often leave Flemish audiences enraged with its mocking lyrics.
The album presents a number of juxtapositions; love and loneliness, love and loss, new life and death, tenderness and anger – and when listened to as a whole presents a striking and well-rounded exploration of human emotions, thus solidifying Brel’s reputation as a poet and artist.
The record starts with the disarming ‘Waltz With A Thousand Beats’, which at first could be considered tame in terms of subject matter for a Brel song. The love song stumbles onto the stereo with a fairground-esque glockenspiel refrain, before flutes, bass, acoustic guitar and drums join Brel – who sings about how the waltz mirrors lovers becoming engrossed in their romance.
As the song progresses, Brel is joined by brass instruments, and the tempo rises to a pace that Brel himself found it hard to keep up with during live performances! In the final stanza, the song is so fast, Brel resigns to “la, la, las” until the abrupt end.
Following this tract is ‘Seul’ (‘Alone’), which brilliantly juxtaposes the dizzying romance of ‘La Valse a Mille Temps’ through its minor chords, punctuated by ringing bells and harshly strummed acoustic guitar. Brel sings of solitude, and the death of lovers – the perfect remedy to the lovers hearts beating to the tune of Paris’s waltz in ‘La Valse a Mille Temps’!
‘The Patroness’ follows, which is a lighthearted poke at those who use charity as a way of promoting themselves, and the swelling melody of ‘I Love You’ brings the record back to its sentimental heart – and provides another contrast to the following song…
Rounding off side one is the remarkable ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’, which starts with the haunting sounds of an ondes martenot before breaking into the piano ballad. The imagery conjured up by Brel in this song puts all English translations to shame, with the reductive ‘If You Go Away’ practically ripping the heart out of the gut-wrenching sadness of the original. ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ is one of the greatest descriptions of heartbreak in popular culture.
Side two begins with the infamous ‘Les Flamandes’, which has often been wrongly judged as an attack on Flemish women – but should be more correctly understood as a critique of repressed Catholic conservatism in Belgium. In the song, Brel describes how the Flemish women dance to please church officials. The act of dancing in this context could be taken to mean a forced repetitive gesture, and is a synonym to the rigid formality of tradition which Brel aimed to criticise. In this sense, the Flemish women are not dancing by choice, they are marionettes controlled by their society.
Next is ‘Isabelle’, a sweet song for Brel’s newly born daughter which features lush string arrangements and touching lyrics. You can view my poetic translation here.
‘La Mort’ (‘Death’) is next, which – unlike Scott Walker and David Bowie’s covers – is a quick march punctuated with melodies that echo the Gregorian chant ‘Dies Irae’ from the requiem mass. This is a fitting link, with the mass’s lyrics ruminating on the day of judgement. Click here to read my poetic translation of ‘La Mort’. The positioning of this track after ‘Isabelle’ poses another juxtaposition: new life and death.
The final pairing on this record presents the themes of tenderness and anger, with the subdued ‘La Tendresse’ in which the narrator explores the lengths that people go to for human contact. True, the lyrics suggest that the devil has skewed man’s perception of tenderness to include those who pay for love, those who change themselves in order to be loveable, and culminates in the narrator offering the song itself in exchange for tenderness.
As the previous song fades out, the silence is abruptly disturbed by the jarring orchestral introduction of ‘La Colombe’ (‘The Dove’), which sounds almost like a horror movie soundtrack compared to the soft woodwind noted of the previous track. The lyrics here focus on the war, utilising a popular nursery rhyme in the chorus to symbolise the death of youth. Brel utilises vivid description here, with descriptions of soldiers “waiting to be slaughtered”, trains that take the form of graveyards driving young men to their deaths, faces “unbuttoned by tears”.
Click on the track title to read more information including a new, poetic translation.
- ‘La Valse a Mille Temps’ (‘The Waltz With A Thousand Beats’)
- ‘Seul’ (‘Alone’)
- ‘La Dame Patronesse’ (‘The Patroness’)
- ‘Je T’Aime’ (‘I Love You’)
- ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ (‘Don’t Leave Me’)