Many of the people who’ll be reading this review know almost nothing about Vanessa Paradis. To most people here in the United States, she’s simply known as Johnny Depp’s longtime girlfriend, as they were together from 1998 until 2012 and had two children. Some people might have read that Vanessa is a popular singer or actress in France, but most Americans have not heard her music or seen her films, which is such a shame because she’s an incredibly talented actress and singer. But I really can’t blame my fellow Americans for not being familiar with Vanessa’s work because, sadly, the vast majority of it has not been released here. One of the films she starred in, The Girl on the Bridge, did get a U.S. release and did quite well, both critics and audiences very impressed with her. But that was way back in 1999 and the majority of her films since have not been released here. As for her music, she released a self-titled, English language album that was written and produced by Lenny Kravitz in 1992 but it went relatively unnoticed here in spite of the fact that it was a major success in several other countries.
Love Songs is a double album and is Vanessa’s first new studio release of original material since 2007’s Divinidylle. It was produced and arranged by acclaimed singer/songwriter Benjamin Biolay, who first collaborated with Vanessa on the duet “Profite” on his new album Vengeance. Benjamin also wrote or co-wrote several of the songs on Love Songs.
Considering that the album is called Love Songs, it should come as no surprise that it opens with a ballad. What is surprising is that it’s an especially mellow ballad, a subtle song where Vanessa sings the lyrics rather softly. Written by Mickaël Furnon, it’s called “L’au delà” and it’s quite beautiful, the lyrics very poetic. Even if you don’t understand a word of French, you can still appreciate how smoothly the words flow and how lovely Vanessa’s voice is. The song has a dreamy vibe and the delicate chorus especially sounds as though it could be a lullaby.
The album’s first single, “Love Song,” is its second track and it was co-written by Benjamin and Vanessa. While the verses are in French, the spell-binding chorus is in English: “Love I don’t know / nothing about love you know / hold me till the day is done / all night long let’s have some fun.” Not particularly clever lyrics, I know, but it is, in fact, quite infectious and it’s a very fun song. Of all the songs on the album, this is the one that sounds the most modern with its punchy beat, radio-friendly pop melody and little electro-touches. It’s an instant classic that you’ll want to listen to again and again. And, as if it wasn’t already attention-grabbing enough, the song also features sirens. The only problem with “Love Song”? There isn’t another song on the album like it. There are a few songs that sound plenty contemporary, yes, but most of the album sounds very organic and you could easily convince someone that much of it was recorded in the ’60’s or ’70’s. Suffice to say that people who buy the album based on “Love Song” might be disappointed when they discover how different the rest of the album is. Truthfully, I was initially disappointed, having hoped most of the album would be in the vein of “Love Song.” But I gave it a few more spins and something just clicked like magic in my head and I fell totally in love with it. I think the fact that it’s a 20 song double album makes it a lot to digest even if the songs are accessible, but it’s quite rewarding if you give it a chance and listen to it with an open mind.
Now that I’m under its spell, there really isn’t a song on Love Songs that I don’t like. But I definitely have my favorites. One of them is “The Dark, It Comes,” a duet with Carl Barât of The Libertines. It’s a hypnotic ballad with enchanting strings and a mesmerizing bass guitar part. The song it most reminds me of is the Kylie Minogue and Nick Cave duet “Where The Wild Roses Go.” It begins with the brief chorus, which Vanessa and Carl sing together: “the sun rolls slowly down again / the dark it comes but I can’t say when.” It’s a nice and moody hook, but the verses are where the song really comes to life, telling the story of a couple dealing with infidelity. “Sweetness sit down I’ve got something to say / I fucked up again in a terrible way,” Carl sings, pleading for forgiveness. The verse ends: “But I need you to remember the pact that we made.” Then Vanessa gets her chance to go off on him, scornfully singing, “I know that you fucked her and that’s what it’s worth / was she better than me? your heart must be cursed.” But it seems she forgives him in the end: “Whatever you did there’s a pact that we made / from the day we first kissed till we lie in our graves.”
One of the album’s more lively songs is “Les Espaces et les sentiments,” which was written by François Villevieille of Eléphant. It has a very funky bass guitar line and groovy reggae-style percussion, meanwhile its lyrics are super poetic, commanding a distinct flow, and Vanessa sings them perfectly, proving that she can masterfully sing anything you throw at her. (And many different things are thrown at her on this album.) And, again, you don’t need to understand French to appreciate the melody and the funk here. Just lose yourself in the mood. Speaking of which, Johnny Depp, Vanessa and their daughter Lily Rose co-wrote and all appear on another particularly funky track, “New Year.” Although it’s in English, you’d swear Serge Gainsbourg wrote it. The percussion, the bassline, the guitar, the melody — it has Gainsbourg written all over it. Which isn’t all that surprising, considering that Gainsbourg wrote all of the lyrics for Vanessa’s second album.
On the lighter side, there’s the lovely acoustic song “Station Quatre-Septembre,” which calls to mind the latest Carla Bruni album. It’s one of the best songs Benjamin wrote for the album, though they’re all quite good. Another highlight is one he co-wrote with Vanessa called “Rocking-Chair.” If I understand the lyrics correctly, it’s about reflecting on memories and mysteries while sitting on a rocking-chair. Benjamin’s production and arrangement of the song are nothing short of marvelous, being that it’s very intricate with a wide variety of instruments, including horns and strings, which he layers together perfectly. He even adds a little record-scratching — like you’d hear in hip-hop — during the end of the song. If the devil is in the details, then the devil is all over this track.
Finally, I have to praise “Mi amor,” which was written by Adrien Gallo of the popular band BB Brunes. It’s a vibrant song with an uber-catchy melody and a killer bass guitar riff that plays perfectly with Vanessa’s passionate and invigorating vocals. You can tell they had a lot of fun recording this one, which is basically about telling off someone crazy and proclaiming that you don’t give a fuck. It’s a refreshing, upbeat tune where Vanessa really gets to let loose and it’s easily one of the best songs on the album.
Ultimately, Love Songs is a work of art first and a pop album second. Suffice to say you’re either going to find it delightful or you’re not going to appreciate it at all. I found it to be a series of compelling Polaroids of an inspired artist finding her own voice.
Vanessa Paradis was the subject of my first Import Zone column for Lollipop magazine in 1998. You can read the column here: http://www.lollipop.com/article.php3?content=issue48/48-01-08.html