Jacques Brel – La Fanette

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A wistful story of an outsider, La Fanette sounds like an early attempt at what Brel did more dramatically with Ces gens-là. There is a similar rhythm, an unreliable narrator and the theme of not being accepted. Other details may be different, but Brel was very good with these kind of songs that explore rejection and hopelessness when you want to belong somewhere, cling to hope of love, only to be disappointed again.

The July beach initially is a place of hope, its emptiness a world of possibilities, the warmth and the lull of the sea bringing comfort. And the beloved is compared to nature in a Brelian fashion, this time she’s as beautiful as a pearl of water. I’m reminded of two things: in Ces gens-là Frida is beautiful as the sun, and in Ne me quitte pas the narrator is ready to offer his lover pearls made from rain that falls where it never rains. These simple images are very powerful. A pearl of water can either be rain or tears, or in this case also seawater. I especially like the double comparison. Drops of water are like pearls, which are something else, something desired, eternal, a symbol of affection and devotion.

He is holding her hand, so there is at some degree of mutuality in affection, although it’s not certain what kind of gesture it is for her.

How often do we cling to these metaphors and comparisons, only to find out that all the beauty of affection was based on an illusion in the first place? There was only hope, and hope was everything, and hope was beauty. Maybe it is all we have, and at times it is enough. But the very moment it is revealed to be just fantasy, the whole world crumbles and nothing is beautiful anymore. That is the danger of placing your dreams in emptiness. What happens when the projection of your desire has no more canvas? There is nothing, just the beach, the cold streets, and the sea that sings forever. We still return to our dreams and disappointments, even when it’s just waves washing the shores.

Alongside the sadness there’s a sinister mood. We don’t know what truly happened except that Fanette found someone else and they went away, swam far from the narrator. They haven’t been seen since, and then he suddenly asserts: let’s talk about something else. This little injection suggests that either he’s too emotional or that there’s something more to the story of lovers who swam too far, and Fanette’s voice that he still keeps hearing when the sea is still. Since Brel did this in other songs too, I think it’s intentional, ambiguity that could turn the song upside down if we think that the narrator had something to do with the disappearance. And that’s what’s wonderful about Brel’s style of lyricism, he can suggest two entirely different stories built from simple elements.

Jacques Brel – La chanson des vieux amants

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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.