Saturday, January 20, 2018
Polydor 2424 146
Back in 2013 my family was up in Montreal on vacation. After dinner my wife and I took a stroll and came upon a giant street party in the big plaza downtown. There was lots of dancing and music along with large cartoonish figures acting out some sort of story. I found it baffling but fun. I did figure out that it was a tribute to Félix Leclerc who I had never heard of. I looked him up when I got back to the hotel and learned he was a French-Canadian pop singer who was a cultural hero and ardent supporter of Quebec nationalism. A few months later I came across this album in a bin of French vinyl at a record store and bought it. Leclerc croons in the French chanson style and has a warm, smooth voice. The music is most interesting to me for its political edge as is evident with the opening track, "L'encan" which is a biting satire of Canada's natural resources and cultural treasures being auctioned off to the rich, including a dig at American interlopers. The song has a carnival feel to it and Leclerc speaks the lyrics more than he sings them. "Chant d'un patriote" takes the point of view of an armed rebel attacking his monarch presumably a reference to the Lower Canada Rebellion of 1837 in Quebec. The stirring guitar strumming and martial drumming convey a feeling of patriotic urgency which enhances Leclerc's passionate vocal. It is one of my favorite tracks on the record. My French isn't good enough to figure out the poetic "Comme une bête" which features a series of metaphors which I believe are meant to convey feelings of loneliness and loss. The music is romantic with evocative use of strings. "La complainte du phoque en Alaska" is a cover of a song by Michel Rivard. It is about a lovelorn seal that has lost his blonde lover or something like that, which apparently is meant to convey the author's own feelings about losing his lover. The song has a music hall flavor that suits Leclerc well. I don't really get "L'ancêtre" which seems to be an homage to his ancestor although there are probably some metaphoric or poetic overtones that escape me. Leclerc's vocal is very spirited on this track. Side two opens with "Les poteaux" which is a humorous song about utility poles. It is another music hall style song. "Le dernier point" was written by Jean-Luc Juvin. It is a dramatic song full of poetic imagery. "Sors-moi donc Albert" expresses the frustrations of a woman imploring her spouse or lover to take her out on a date. It has a cabaret feel to it with jazzy overtones. "Fatalité" is a lively folk-style song. "Un an déja" addresses a recently deceased friend. He inquires about conditions in the afterlife contrasting it with dissatisfaction with current conditions some of which seem specific to life in Quebec. The music is very subdued as Leclerc recites the lyrics rather than singing them. The album concludes with the brilliant "Le tour de l'ile" which describes L'Île d'Orléans where Leclerc lived in Quebec. He describes the beauty and charm of the island, as well as its exploitation by the government and outsiders (including another dig at the United States.) He compares the island to France and asserts his support for French-Canadian sovereignty in Quebec. It is a beautiful song bolstered by a sensitive string arrangement and a robust, yet tender vocal from Leclerc. It is my other favorite track on the record and gives the album a powerful finish. I don't have the language skills or cultural awareness to fully appreciate Leclerc's work. I like the music, but I'm mostly drawn to this record by Leclerc's vocals. I find his phrasing and the timber of his voice very pleasing and he is able to reach me emotionally even when I'm not sure what he is singing about. I also appreciate the personal and poetic quality of his songwriting despite my limited understanding. Recommended to Francophile Leonard Cohen fans.