French singer Johnny Hallyday is something of phenomenon in his native land and the sheer ability to survive through six or more decades is, if nothing else, testimony to his sustainability. This explains, perhaps, why Melvin Bragg was moved to feature a full length documentary on the singer as a programme on the South Bank Show several years ago. Rather than mirroring the French chanson tradition of Brassens, Brel and Ferré, Hallyday instead chose an altogether different direction, though always delivering his repertoire in French. The early rock and roll music of the United States has always served at the major inspiration for Hallyday’s work, with Elvis Presley arguably the strongest influence of all. For an English-speaking audience the combination of American-style rock instrumentation with French lyrics may seem alien and contrary to their stereotypical images of the music of Françoise Hardy and even Serge Gainsbourg, but in a French context it makes eminent sense and, in any case, the French have always enjoyed an ambivalent love-hate relationship with the USA. Johnny Hallyday has something of a cult following in France (a male farmer in his fifties living in Auxerre being his typical fan base) that is mocked by his dissenters, yet adored by his fellow worshippers and these include a former president and close friend, Nicolas Sarkozy. If one had to make any comparison at all, and there is no direct equivalent, then Hallyday has the longevity of Cliff Richard, the bad boy image of the early Rod Stewart (plus the coterie of women admirers, invariably blond also!) and the avowedly macho approach of Tom Jones, who also happens to be closest to him in age.
For this new recording, Hallyday’s fiftieth studio recording in total, an alt.country instrumental accompaniment serves as the backdrop with American musician Greg Leisz performing on dobro and acoustic guitar, and the album works best in this vein as on the uptempo ‘Mon Coeur qui bat’. Hallyday has always, like Yves Montand before him, been an interpreter of songs rather than an outright singer-songwriter, and he reserves his finest performance for a lovely ballad, in ‘L’amour me fusille’, which is at once lyrical and melancholic. This would be an ideal song for a single to showcase the album as whole. Young rock producer Yodelice keeps the music sounding contemporary and co-writes on several of the songs. A sign of the fully mature musician and human being can be heard on a song such as, ‘Dans la peau de Mike Brown’ (‘Inside Mike Brown’s skin’, which is a homage to a young African-American who was shot dead by the American police. Behind the tough guy exterior, there is a more sensitive individual who cares about humanity and this interpretation may come as a surprise to his detractors. In general the songs are well crafted and suited to his throaty delivery. Further evidence of Hallyday now observing the world is provided on ‘Un dimanche de janvier’ with an intimate acoustic guitar and voice only intro. This is an appropriate way to end the album on a reflective note.
Johnny Hallyday is nothing less than a prolific live performer and numerous studio albums are followed by a live recording. He will be performing this winter and spring the length and breadth of the Hexagone (the French refer affectionately to the shape of their country in this manner).