French music has been blessed with at least two major exponents of folk-derived music who have been inspired in part by the songbook and outlook of Bob Dylan, even if subsequently they have proceeded to chart their own distinctive and highly individualistic career paths rather than being a mere clone of the 1960s icon.
One of these is Maxime Le Forestier, who travelled to the United States in the post-Woodstock era, and recorded the early 1970s anthem, ‘San Francisco’, that launched his career. The other, younger and emerging figure some five or so years later, is Renaud [Séchan] and it is the latter who is the primary focus of this album review. Renaud has never been shy of addressing deeper social issues and first came to prominence in the late 1970s with a song devoted to life on the French equivalent of a council estate, but in the suburbs, entitled, ‘Dans mon H.L.M’ and incorporated inverted slang on ‘Laisse-béton’ well before any French rappers came onto the scene. He achieved more mainstream success in the mid-1980s with ‘Morgane de toi’ before a lengthy absence while he struggled with a long-term alcohol addiction
This new album marks his first in six years, but here is back in form, fully lucid, and in both reflective and melodic mood throughout and the listener is very much the beneficiary. In his 2002 album ‘Boucan D’enfer’ Renaud covered similar social ground with the hit single, ‘Manhattan-Kaboul’. that made a direct parallel between the daily lives of inhabitants on the streets of these two cities, and one would do well to reflect on what humanity has in common rather than what appears on the surface at first sight to divide us. With most recent events in Nice still fresh in the memory, a key song on the new project is ‘Hype Cacher’ that without any great fanfare or grandiose statement, quite simply, but expertly in verse, recounts the events at a Paris supermarket in November 2015 and ends with,
I want to dedicate this poem to them
To tell them that they are dear to us
And that we will never forget them
In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, a second song, ‘J’ai embrassé un flic’ (‘I embraced a cop’) recounts the mobilisation of ordinary French citizens to protest peacefully against the violence committed in the name of a religion that rejects such action. Renaud is known for his left of centre stance and that makes his act of hugging a member of the police force all the more poignant.
For those wishing to explore in greater depth the historical tradition of the French chanson, Renaud is a direct descendent of that tradition, particularly influenced by Brassens, but even, perhaps, by Charles Trenet, who was capable of composing a masterpiece such as ‘Douce France’ during wartime conditions and is strongly recommended to neophytes. His song,’ Boom’ was used as the introductory music to the Euro football tournament by ITV. The song ‘Les mots’ finds renaud in more philosophical mood and emphasizes the sheer joy of writing and making words come to life that is his trademark. His style has changed little and on ‘Petit bonhomme’, the accompaniment of accordion and acoustic guitar (Renaud invariably performs on stage with a guitar) has given his music a timeless quality that his fans admire.
To non-French speakers, the chanson tradition may seem impenetrable, but it can be at once melodic and message-laden and worth making that extra special effort to investigate further. Renaud is an integral part of that tradition and it comes as little surprise that at a time of great anguish and uncertainty, Renaud, while never promising any easy solutions, continues on his own path as a wordsmith of distinction. Even the gravel-inflected voice cannot take that quality away from him. A splendid return to form. Those wishing to intensify their interest in Renaud would be well served investigating the 2002 album, ‘Boucan d’Enfer’ and for an overview of the first decade, ‘Le meilleur de 75-85’ (Polydor France, 2009).