Charles Aznavour – Désormais

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It’s a pity that this kind of orchestral pop fell out of fashion. Sure, singers still perform with orchestras, but there is something missing. Often they sing covers of hits originally performed in a different genre, making the performance sound like a schmalzier, romanticised version. And nowadays new songs in this style sound the same, as if they were also covers.

Perhaps it’s easier to sound authentic when expressing sadness, but here Aznavour manages splendidly. The strings are booming and swirling, and the horn section blares as if inserting exclamation points between phrases. With these elements the song could easily sound tacky, but to my ear it’s still refreshing. Sadness and despair become a show, a performance, but underneath it all it feels like it is genuine, like the pompousness is just a way to make it more bearable. Wear your heart on your sleeve in such a dramatic fashion that it feels a bit fake, maybe that will ease the pain. And yet it makes it all the more evident. It’s a difficult trick to pull off. I have praised Aznavour’s acting skills before, how he infused the song with emotion in each performance, and here he sells the despair.

The title means “henceforth” or, more simply, “from now on”, and it’s a poetic text about things that won’t be happening anymore, now that the relationship is over. I never realized it before, but this could be a sequel to Brel’s Ne me quitte pas. Brel’s song is intimate and pleading, and the desperation leads to self-sacrifice, willingness to become the “shadow of your shadow, shadow of your hand, shadow of your dog,” if only the lover agreed to stay.

Here the message is different. There is no more pleading, simply all-encompassing sadness that doesn’t let on. In the second verse Aznavour sings “I, who wanted to be your shadow, will be the shadow of myself, my hand separated from your hand,” so that’s the connection to Brel.

In the chorus Aznavour faces what was lost, but the focus is on how the separation is eternal, as the music is at it’s most dramatic when he sings “nevermore” (Jamais plus). The images are simple but fitting in their intimacy. We won’t bite the same fruit, sleep in the same bed, perform the same gesture. And what seems most heartbreaking of all, we won’t feel the same fear of seeing our happiness flee from us. The break-up has been anticipated, but it doesn’t make it less sad. It even feels more tragic because if they’ve both felt the same fear, they’ve tried to hold on to the relationship even while seeing the dark clouds. And then failure and admittance that it was doomed.

Yet, maybe the arrangement suggests strength and defiance. At least compared to Brel’s song which is like all the remaining strength is channelled into the last plea, here the passion of the song shows resilience even while things are looking very dark. Life itself is not over, and while in this song there’s melancholy in the thought that the two people will move on and will be seen with someone else, it feels like a different feeling is around the corner.

It’s not the only time Aznavour expresses this contradictory feeling: the fact that there will be others is simultaneously sad and hopeful. There is no reason to deny that the break-up is sad, and Aznavour often elevates it to describe impermanence as the human condition, full of gentle or dramatic wistfulness, and yet he embraces the idea that he will rise again. Even if there are failures in the future, the drama will continue, new moments of happiness will come. When they go away, we will grieve again, then look up, see another sunrise. Maybe that is what I find especially attractive about these songs, the acceptance of sadness as a part of life, and the ability to go on. There is a time to dwell in what was lost, but as surely as the strings howl and the singer belts “nevermore”, there will be strength to dwell in new moments of happiness.

Charles Aznavour – Tout s’en va

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Another Aznavour song simmering in melancholy, while the arrangement makes it bubble throughout, the beat relentless, giving the impression of time passing. How fast everything fades away, and yet with the hours flying by there’s always hope, the next day is just around the corner, maybe a new love.

The song isn’t about one particular love but several, the loves of the past, and the lamentation of how everything goes away, everything dies. And in classic Aznavour style there’s also clever punning. At the end of each refrain he sings the rhyme to a previous line, which then seems to remind him of yet another woman. Morose… Rose. Realise… Lise… etc.

And the verses describe simply but beautifully little precious moment and hiccups in relationships, arguments that could have been avoided, had the two people been wiser, more forgiving perhaps. Or maybe there wasn’t anything wrong. Things just ended despite all the moments adoring the snow or biting the fruit of love madly.

I especially like the voice acting at the end of the last verse, when he sings “happiness is fragile,” sounding, well, very fragile. Yet at the end is the message of hope. The spring returns. Such is life, he exclaims as the music swells for the final boom.

It makes me think of not only love but the passing of time, the fragility of existence. How much we treasure our little moments when one touch can be everything, one gaze, and yet we might never know what the other person is thinking. What seems like brief glimpse to someone’s soul, the infinite beauty, the shared vision, looking at each other, could be something altogether different for the other person, for example mere curiosity. We may wish that the connection is real, but perhaps dare not ask lest the belief in it proves to be unfounded. Refraining from communication may be the last attempt to hold on to our own dreams of love, and yet it is a silence that destroys the connection we attempt to maintain.

It is sometimes so meaningful it hurts, these little moments, just two seconds of looking at each other when everything else disappears, and then nothingness. Surrounded by the blackness of the universe, other worlds, other obligations. What is true in those brief seconds is yet the meaning of existence, what we live for, this love beyond all the things we say or do. Fragile, and yet, precisely like that, perfect. The hope of having such moments last, connections becoming true, two people wishing the same thing, this happiness in each other lasting until everything else has fallen apart. We live and hope for yet another day, yet another chance. Maybe next time.

Michel Polnareff – Love me, please love me

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Love makes children of us all. It makes us fools. It is defiance in front of indifference, unabashed romanticism where cynicism seems rational. It makes us stronger yet vulnerable. Here I stand, wanting to be loved, yearning, pleading, bleeding, and while you keep mocking me I turn into a fool over and over again, despairing in such a public and passionate manner that it only grows into stronger determination.

This is the strength of Polnareff’s song. There is no fear of sounding naive, because the tone is very appropriate when singing about love. Words fail us, melodies fail us, for nothing can adequately express the longing to be loved, the fire and the obsession, the flame that burns the heart even when it seems on the cusp of being extinguished.

Love is hope even when everything seems hopeless. It is starting the day with the same thought while solitude seems to extend toward eternity, the night, the endlessness of space, the loneliness, the misunderstanding, the miscommunication, the inability to voice one’s feelings and the inability of the beloved to receive them.

Like in so many songs of hopeless love, such as For Me… Formidable, the feeling here seems strong, yet somehow superficial. The singer laments his lover’s eyes full of boredom, which makes me wonder what he sees in her in the first place. It paints a picture of an object of love that is so cold and indifferent that it starts to sound like cruelty, which makes me wonder what he sees in her in the first place. It doesn’t seem like the attraction is toward her personality, but more like infatuation with looks or simple sexual desire.

So while the it sounds romantic to the point of seeming saccharine, maybe it is closer to lewd rock songs than describing something everlasting or love as a spiritual experience. Yet there’s this air of innocence, as physicality is never mentioned. Comme Romeo et Juliet, to quote the title of another Polnareff song; Shakespeare’s play is also often considered extremely romantic, although the lovers never truly know each other. It’s physical attraction through and through, with poetry of longing thrown in.

And yet the bouncing melody, the falsetto, the pleading delivery takes us to a place of airy wonder, the moments when hope is on the brink of overcoming hopelessness, when pure feelings start to prevail, when everything is wrong but nothing seems like it. Perhaps if the plea is strong enough, the indifference will melt away, revealing something true. It is the hope that coldness is just a facade. Life has taught me that usually it’s best to believe it. But there’s still the possibility that maybe it’s just shyness or fear of rejection, and that’s the hope that seems worth clinging to, even at the risk of seeming foolish.

Françoise Hardy – Sí, mi caballero

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Hardy’s 1971 album La Question wasn’t well received at the time, but now it stands as a landmark of breathy sensuality and poetic imagery. The singing style has become so much more popular now that it’s easy to think it sounds affected. Yet even now the quiet melancholy of this love song sounds somewhat mysterious.

Why the Spanish “caballero” in a song otherwise in French? It’s derived from the word for “horse” and means gentleman, a knight, and later in Mexico came to mean a cowboy. But it meant rather the wealthier cattle owners than the labourers who were called vaqueros. So if I’ve got it correctly, the title could be translated as “Yes, my gentleman” or “Yes, my cowboy”, but both are somewhat misleading.

More generally the song is for a gentleman who is still in touch with the earth and nature, not someone who is sipping champagne in a yacht. While the image of a cowboy is largely positive in books and movies, in English (or French) the connotation of gentlemanly conduct isn’t as strong as it would be with the Spanish word, though there’s nothing inherently incompatible either.

I’m a bit uncertain whether the Spanish part says “Si” or “Sí,” if or yes. It may call for a deconstructive reading, but I think it’s safe to assume that affirmation is meant instead of conditionality when there’s no consequence clause. Thus:

“Sí, mi caballero, j’aimerais bien être
La blanche poussière qui suit ton troupeau”

“Yes, my cowboy, I’d love to be the white dust that follows your herd”. Later there are clear if-clauses in French, which adds to the interplay of meanings: is the singer accepting her lover’s assertions or coming up with conditions of her own? At the very least when she follows up with “If I were dust, I would follow you. If I were a blade of grass, you would carry me,” she’s making them her own, regardless of the origin.

I’m reminded of Hegel’s dialectic of the master and the slave. Who is in control when the act of surrendering starts to define the relationship as a whole? The yearning is defined by the narrator, and yet she sings in Spanish “yes, my cowboy” as if it’s a series of answers to questions we cannot hear, an affirmation of the gentleman’s wishes and expectations. But we simply do not know whether it’s an emphatic “Yes! I mean it!” or an affirmation, which further adds to the mystery of the song.

“Il me suffirait sur tes lèvres sèches, d’être goutte d’eau.”
“It would be enough for me to be a drop of water on your dry lips.”

It is a song about the totality of love, the surrendering that makes us more than what we are. It may sound like giving up one’s own will, becoming an inanimate object, content in merely serving one’s lover. But it is not all. Embracing the world, becoming every object, the dust, a blade of grass, a drop of water. I am everywhere and nowhere at once. In love I transcend my ego. The neediness seems overwhelming, so much so that it blurs the concepts of surrendering and demanding.

It makes the act of surrendering even more complete if you think that even these images of dust and grass were provided by the lover. But therein lies also the escape. You cannot control the dust, nor the drops of water. Love is given freely, and it cannot be grabbed by force.

Liberation. I forget myself, thereby I am free of the fetters of my past, of my needs, of the politics that ruled me, the body that demanded attention. I am the falling feather, the breath on your skin, I am the pleasure that I give, feeling this immense desire to share, to be the shiver that travels through the world, through my body and yours as we sigh in unison.

In the act of sharing I lose myself, and yet gain much more: the pleasure of swaying in the wind, the pleasure of becoming always something else, the leaves, the stars. In comparison, being a cowboy seems terribly restrictive. Immanence is imprisonment. Love, freedom, surrendering, transcendence. Let us be everything for each other, in each other, in this embrace, the dust and the cowboy, the lips and the water. This wonder, this unity, this independence in belonging, this permanence in becoming.

Charles Aznavour – For Me… Formidable

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Sometimes I’ve seen Aznavour called the French Morrissey, a comparison that would be an injustice to both of them. Aznavour’s first album came out in 1952 and the last one in 2015 when he was already 90 years old. A lot of his songs deal with love one way or another, and many of the more famous ones are about loss or recalling past happiness, which is probably the reason for the comparison in the first place.

For Me… Formidable, however, is an example of a humorous song in which the music is a part of the joke. It plays on the clichés of love songs but also on the similarities and differences between the French and English language. Both have adjectives formed with -able, though the meaning is often slightly different. As the song begins, we’re led to think that it’s in English, and then it turns out it’s only a few phrases, with -able words functioning as transitions. If you only understand the English lyrics, the song appears to be a tune listing the good qualities of the loved one, the chorus being an emphatic confession of love like the peak of excitement in cinematic musical numbers, the melody ascending from the verse to the chorus.

However, the French text is at the same time affirming and subverting the message. It is still a love song, but one that is poking fun at the English statements. Just before Aznavour sings “Darling I love you, love you, darling I want you,” he’s lamenting that he doesn’t have the eloquence or vocabulary of Shakespeare or Molière, but only has these kinds of words to offer. He only wants to be close to his lover, and as the chorus booms we’re led to think that surely the statement has to be sincere, since he’s sad that these simple words are the best he has. Yet, at the same time it’s the moment when the music is at its most bombastic, as if the whole confession has been turned into a show tune, revealing its artificiality. So according to the song the words in English are actually superficial and cannot do justice to the real feeling. It’s not obvious that French would be any better, but since the music sounds like an American show tune, the song seems to poke fun at the ease with which such words are uttered in American movies.

Moreover, at the end of the song, where the final peak is reached musically, he’s actually wondering why he loves her at all since she mocks him and everything else. The final line “How can I love you?” thus has two meanings: ignoring the French lyrics and just listening to the music, it sounds like it could mean the singer is looking for a way to love her properly. But in reality he’s questioning the love itself. A good example of how the context changes the meaning of a sentence completely. Perhaps if he was more eloquent things could be different, but being in love it seems all words are escaping him. So the ending is yet another reversal of meaning: first the singer has lamented how inadequate these English words are, so superficial, but in the end maybe his love itself is superficial, which would make the statements actually appropriate. It’s the instability of meaning that makes the song brilliant even more than the clever puns when switching between French and English.

Thus the song can have two very different effects. Just listening to the music, it’s fun to dance to it and be swept by the show tune qualities, ecstatic love confessions in which the most bombastic statements suddenly feel sincere because at the height of infatuation all the things that otherwise might sound ridiculous feel very real. But the song also makes me wonder about the relationship of language and the world, and whether we can ever truly express what we feel, and how the gap between words and meanings affects everything.