A recent BBC documentary focused on a brief history of the French chanson tradition and within time constraints made a pretty good stab at introducing a wider public to the music, but in so doing it missed a few major singers, including Renaud, Jacques Higelin and Alain Bashung. Bernard Lavilliers is one such example and he occupies the unusual territory in France of using his extensive travelling throughout the globe as the pretext for his song writing and, from the late 1970s onwards, that has invariably incorporated world roots beats with some of the finest practitioners of those rhythms. Among the guests one is likely to find the late Cesaria Evora, numerous African, reggae and even salsa musicians of the highest calibre. Khaled is the only other French resident (but of Algerian nationality) to even approach Lavilliers in terms of musical métissage and one who has fused different roots influences, invariably that has been reggae with rai.
Now in his sixth decade, Lavilliers has widened his repertoire and this current release from 2014 is both a retrospective of his earlier material and a reworking of some old favourites. While it is emphatically not a rehashed ‘Best of’, it does serve as a useful introduction and foot in the door to the Lavilliers canon of work. A potential hit single and duet with Faada Freddy in ‘Melody tempo harmony’ ends the album in an uptempo vein and on a somewhat triumphant note and introduces a newer element of fusing dance style, with reggae and funk added to the mix
Balladry is not something normally associate with the persona of the singer, yet he is capable of the most delicate of love songs and ‘Betty’ is a fine example of his late 1970s period. His travelling has inspired many a song and in the case of ‘On the road again’, it was a trip to Ireland that motivated him and this folk-tinged number is one of his most melodic ever compositions and an ideal way for non-French speakers to hear him. The gentle sounding ‘Manila Hotel’ from the mid-1990s is helped on its way by the use of accordion.
An ode to his native Saint-Etienne from the mid-1970s now has a new added significance with the inhabitants of that city facing the wrath in recent years from the hallowed pen of Le Monde and this features a heavy bassline and spoken introduction. The profoundly humanist and universal message behind Lavilliers’ music never found a better vehicle than on the mid-1980s hit ‘Noir et blanc’ that argues in favour of a diverse and cosmopolitan France and the apparent simplicity of the lyrics disguises a far more complex reality. Lavilliers early period as a rocker (and that earned him a reputation as a ‘loubard’ or bad boy) is only fleetingly alluded to on ‘Les barbares’ and ‘Traffic’. He has clearly moved on since then and expanded his horizons. In its place a new social conscience is and the dire consequences of youth and gun culture is explicitly referenced in ‘Petit’. A lavish booklet with full lyrics in French only will delight many a student of French. Another consistently high quality release from a singer who matures like a fine Bordeaux.