Jacques Brel – La chanson des vieux amants

Growing up in an age of doubt and indifference I felt that Brel was a breath of fresh air in his unabashed romanticism. Many of his songs deal with love, but it’s not the idealized version, but something that seems more real, heartbreaking even when it is passionate. Feelings of inferiority abound in many of his songs, as well as infidelity and strange masochism. And yet there is always this feeling that love can conquer all, because it is such a great force that it slices through any obstacle.

La chanson des vieux amants, the song of old lovers. is just as much about the passage of time as it is about love. What changes, what remains the same. There is beautiful melancholy in thinking back on the storms survived, and the decisions to stay together despite them, or maybe even because of them, each solution found bringing a renewed sense of unity. Brel sings of the room without a crib, in an offhand way referring to how childlessness might have affected them. Also mentioned are the infidelities, and how the man “lost the taste for conquest” which apparently once seemed essential. Yet the love goes on, transforming with time. The song implies that love is something fluid, as the passion and the pain, the conquest and surrendering that have constituted its essence, now are something different.

So time has revealed that it was not an essence at all, not something unchanging and ineluctable. The music and the delivery convey an idea that it was always fragile, and that may because of the realization that our ideas of love are not set in stone, and hence the relationship itself is always fragile. Yet the refrain is a consolation. No matter what has happened, the belief remains. There is faith in both love and the other person, the two perhaps becoming inseparable as time goes on.

Perhaps it is the flaws of the relationship that make the hope in the song so touching. There is a feeling that the relationship hasn’t exactly been a healthy one, and yet by strength of feeling or sheer stubbornness they’ve persisted. It is romanticism born not ouf of an ideal of happily ever after, but out of the notion that despite the unhappy moments two people can still make it work out and even find peace and solace. What remains in the end is just the confession, I love you, after all the things we’ve been through, nothing else really matters. It gives hope that no matter what the problems might be, this may be the cynosure guiding the two people home, to their shelter, even when it’s crooked, roof leaking and the wind wailing in the corners of the room.