Perilous Intimacy

Dernière Volonté | Prie pour moi | la grande france macabre | 2016

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A review by Tenebrous Kate

Throughout the twentieth century, French artists preserved the uniquely Gallic flavor of their country’s music, developing domestic styles like smoky cabaret chansons and doe-eyed yé-yé pop as well as creating Francophone spins on new wave and alternative music. The characteristics of the language–its flow and form–shaped this music, incorporating new sonic trends while remaining distinctly French. As English-speaking rock acts dominated pop charts across Europe, language protection statutes in France meant that the radio airwaves focused on music in the nation’s mother tongue. During the 1960s and 1970s, popular songs originally performed in English were re-recorded in French, often changing their original meanings entirely in the process. In one all-too-perfect example of this phenomenon, Johnny “French Elvis” Hallyday’s version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe”, a tale of spousal murder, becomes a meditation on the meaninglessness and loneliness of modern life. A combination of poetic lyrics, theatrical emotions, wry humor, and eroticism characterize the country’s popular music, alongside a sweetness of melody that both masks and complements what is often bleak subject matter.

In the world of contemporary music, artists grapple with this legacy. The established pop stylebook gives musicians a number of tropes and tools to play with as they see fit, twisting themes or outright discarding them. Bands like Blut Aus Nord seem to ignore their country’s cultural protectionism altogether, signaling as much by adopting a (grammatically incorrect) German-language band name and releasing albums with English and Latin titles. As government-regulated radio and television become obsolete as methods for distributing and discovering new music, an increasing number of musicians are moving away from francophone lyrics and, with them, the forms that have been characteristic to French music for almost a century.

There is a subset of bands that seek to preserve a distinctively French legacy in music, however. There is the nouvelle chanson movement that sees the French language as the defining characteristic to these emotional, evocative songs, but whose compositions differ from traditional chanson by blending in rock, electronic, and Afro-Caribbean/Latin American musical elements. Perhaps the inverse of this is the vicious anti-urbanism of Peste Noire that looks to a romanticized and borderline-medieval manifestation of their culture, satirizing and rejecting popular music themes while finding ways to proudly proclaim their Frenchness.

Somewhere in the vast distance between these approaches exists the music of one-man electronic project Dernière Volonté. Dernière Volonté has gone through a significant metamorphosis since the release of its 1998 debut Obeir et mourir. The project’s initial incarnation was as an atmospheric martial industrial act with all of the well-worn World War II references and synthesized percussion that this implies. This fairly uninspiring phase would not last long, however, with 2003’s Les blessures de l’ombre marking the blossoming of creator Geoffroy D.’s vision into what would become a darker-than-dark pop act worthy of consideration alongside greats like Depeche Mode, New Order, and Soft Cell. In the intervening years, Dernière Volonté has produced songs that combine French pop theatrics, post-punk nihilism, nineteenth century Symbolist poetry, electronica, and traditional instrumentation to create an intoxicating blend that is utterly unique and unmistakably French. By the release of 2012’s Mon meilleur ennemi, the project’s songs had taken on the character of delectable pop morsels, elegantly produced and endlessly replayable.

Released earlier this year, Prie pour moi finds Dernière Volonté returning to a slightly more severe sound when considered beside some of the sweeter moments of Mon meilleur ennemi. This album hearkens back to 2006’s Devant le miroir, with its balance of danceable pop and serene, even mournful passages. The clichés that one associates with martial industrial–ominous historical samples, machine gun effects, and meandering song structure–are nowhere to be found, resulting in a sound that can be best dubbed “martial pop”. Rather than ticking along at a marching cadence, the martial standing percussion technique is used on rhythms that evoke the folk dances of seventeenth and eighteenth century France. In no way can these songs be classified as folk, however; they are thoroughly modern compositions that rest on a base of tradition. “Les rêves de Dorian” provides an especially vivid example of this sonic collage approach, incorporating hurdy gurdy, synthesized violin and pipe organ, and martial drums with chanted vocals that flirt with Gallic rap.

The word flirt is an apt one to describe the music of Dernière Volonté–the eroticism of Prie pour moi is palpable from the sweet female sighs that open the album. The spirit of Decadence is a difficult one to capture, existing as it does in a strange space between the intellectual and the vulgar. Adding to this delicate aesthetic balancing act is the fact that many artists attempting to work in this mode fail to use language sensually, ignoring the shapes and rhythms of words in a rush to convey ideas. It’s not an accident that France is the birthplace of the Decadent movement, since the language itself is spoken with whispering sibilance and throaty softness of sound that lends itself to expressing intimacies. Dernière Volonté produces music that manages to be languid and enticing while remaining utterly bleak, with lyrics that employ images of blood, mourning, betrayal, and murder to evoke the darkest forms of love and sex without slipping into explicitness. Intoxicatingly overripe, this music is the spiritual inheritor to Baudelaire and Barbey d’Aurevilly, a connection that Geoffroy D. makes absolute by reworking nineteenth century poetry in his lyrics. Prie pour moi finds him adapting Alfred de Musset’s[1] “La nuit de décembre”, a poem that recounts a man’s sorrow-filled relationship with his doppelgänger, placing it on a minor key backdrop of dancefloor-worthy rhythms and portentous organ music.

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There’s a very real magic to the music of Dernière Volonté, an elegant blend of pop sensibility, eroticism, and deeply-rooted attachment to French culture that combine to create that rarest of albums that can be enjoyed as a danceable frippery or as a work of art that reveals deeper artistic and cultural significance. The subtle shift in the project’s sound marked on Prie pour moi doesn’t necessarily mark an evolution, but when an artist has such a rich vein of inspirations and references from which to draw, placing the critical emphasis on novelty seems to be a misplaced effort. Pleasurable from start to finish, this most recent Dernière Volonté offering is one well worth savoring.


Notes:
[1] Alfred De Musset was a figure of some note in the world of nineteenth century art and literature. He inspired gossip around his love affair with the gender-bending woman writer George Sand, which he detailed in his 1836 novel La confession d’un enfant du siècle. His poems were embraced by envelope-pushing artists in future generations, inspiring Henri Gervex’s scandalous painting of a prostitute as well as Der Student von Prag, a silent film scripted by German Decadent luminary Hanns Heinz Ewers.

About Tenebrous Kate (3 Articles)
Illustrator. Writer. Ascended Creep. Party Nihilist.

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