My knowledge of French is pretty limited: enough to navigate my way through a weekend in Épernay, where hardly anyone speaks English, but not enough to ensure that the worldly Parisians who staff the City of Light’s cafés and boulangeries won’t respond in English to my garbled attempts at placing an order. Despite this linguistic impediment, I’m currently devouring the second, self-titled EP by Julien Perez (aka Perez), sung entirely in French. Much of the EP’s appeal stems from my own rampant Francophilia, particularly when it comes to music: ever since hearing Daft Punk’s Discovery on its release in 2001 and discovering the connections between the key players of the ‘French touch’ movement of the late nineties, I’ve been hooked on the contemporary music of France. But there’s also much to be said for the strange pleasure of listening to music in foreign languages.
Unlike Daft Punk and their peers and epigones, Perez isn’t likely to make waves here in Australia. Even besides the challenge presented by the language barrier – which seems more readily permeated by female artists such as Émilie Simon, Camille, and Yelle, or bands fronted by female singers such as Nouvelle Vague – Perez’s latest EP is marked by a kind of distinctively French cheesiness that is, like a ripe Boulette d’Avesnes, an acquired taste. It wasn’t always this way: his first EP, Cramer, was produced by underground wünderkind Pilooski, whose subtle mastery of electronics was matched by restrained vocal performances from Perez. It was also, not coincidentally, released on Dirty Sound System, which is for my money – and I have spent a lot of my money on their limited-edition vinyl releases – one of the best underground record labels currently operating.
Perez’s new EP, though, has been released through Barclay – a hugely important label in twentieth century French music – and is aimed rather directly at the Francophone mainstream. It’s not just the slick, EDM-like production, courtesy of nouveau chanson old hand Jean-Louis Piérot and Cassius’s Philippe Zdar. It’s also Perez’s voice, which now unabashedlyemotes with a kind of intensity that is rare and perhaps intimidating in English-speaking male singers. Where previously Perez’s singing was reminiscent – at least for this hopeless Anglophone – of Serge Gainsbourg, all ironic distance and understated cool, on this new EP he brings to my mind no less than Julien Clerc, the sometimes-derided but tremendously charismatic master of cheesy Gallic pop. (Those with more extensive backgrounds in chanson might find the Perez/Clerc analogy absurd; French music bible Les Inrockuptibles, for its part, claims that Perez’s key influence is the cult chanteur Alain Bashung)
As to how much Perez’s lyrics fit in to Clerc’s mould, that I can’t say: my French simply isn’t good enough to understand what, exactly, Perez is singing about. Listening to ‘Une autre fois’ for the first time, I could pick out that the song is set around Paris’s Gare du Nord, possibly in winter. Later, I found a copy of the lyrics – or, as they say in French, ‘paroles’ – on the web, and slowly puzzled out the song’s narrative: Perez’s narrator parts ways with a lover at the Gare du Nord, but does not come on to the platform to kiss her; he later descends into an alcoholic nightmare, filled with regret for his cowardice. But you don’t necessarily need to understand any French to hear, in the plangent piano chords that open the piece, the thumbnail picture of desolation Perez sketches: a cold Gare du Nord, full of tourists and the sketchy types that prey on tourists, ground littered with cigarette butts. Similarly, you don’t need to speak French to feel in ‘Le rôdeur’ (‘The Prowler’) a sleazy and hectic nocturnal chase.
My non- or part-comprehending appreciation of Perez’s music might seem to prop up Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s oft-quoted nostrum that ‘Music is the universal language of mankind.’ However, it’s worth bearing in mind that French music follows the very same Western musical constructs of rhythm, harmony, chromatic scales (and so on) as English-language music does. Listening to Perez’s latest EP is completely unlike listening to something truly musically foreign, such as the Tibetan folk songs of Tenzin Choegyal, the heady blend of Thai folk music and western psychedelia played by Khun Narin’s Electric Phin Band, or the keening, Eastern European–influenced sound of A Hawk and a Hacksaw’s You Have Already Gone to the Other World. Despite this, the strangeness of Perez’s language – and that of the other foreign-language music I have recently been obsessed with: Destroyer’s Five Spanish Songs EP and Norwegian singer Erlend Øye’s Italian-language single ‘La prima estate’ – renders the music itself partially strange.
Music is, demonstrably, not the universal language of mankind: if that were the case I could make myself understood in Paris’s cafés and boulangeries by carrying around an iPod full of songs titled ‘A Coffee, Please’ or ‘A Baguette With Duck Rillettes To Go, Thanks’. Instead of the promise of universal communication, foreign language music offers us something much better: a reminder of the power of alterity, and of the thrilling and sometimes bewildering diversity of human culture.