Noir Désir – Des Visages Des Figures (2001)

I really can’t explain why I like this album so much. For one thing, it’s in French, and I only understand about half of the lyrics. Further more, it’s very lyric-dependent, since Bertrand Cantat is more poet than singer in general, and I think more so on this album than the other Noir Désir records. And yet, in spite of this, there’s a cadence to this music which enthralls me, a dark, urban, tense mood which speaks to me more than the words themselves.

I used to be obsessed with this record in 2007. Back then, I was part of a show called “Don’t look back” – it was a sort-of theater/performance hybrid, built around the very large space of the Sibiu City Hall. The show was a vision of Orpheus’ journey through the underworld, taking groups of spectators through a labyrinth of halls and rooms populated with actors embodying ghostly apparitions, half romantic, half bureaucratic, quite akin to Kafka’s weave of moods in The Trial and The Castle. It was fun being a ghostly bride’s groom/bureaucrat, carrying boxes of papers up and down flights of stairs, it really was, and the rhythm of that activity seemed to work very well with Des Visages Des Figures in between rehearsals. I would take long walks through the rather cold, dreary city (it was more a question of unpleasant weather than urban space) listening to this album on repeat and I would find myself staring at statues, eyes unfocused, listening to my own breath working with the music. All this while carrying a plushy clown toy around with me.

You can probably guess now why I feel like there’s a touch of madness, of absurdity in this record, why there’s a rhythm sewing it together, which I can’t really put my finger on and I can’t really describe. All I know is that this record felt very different to me from any of this band’s previous releases. Noir Désir started as a late-punk affair, if I’m not mistaking. Always with a political edge (even here, surely), always with an attitude, I was surprised to discover the evolution of their approach to music backwards, since I first listened to Des Visages Des Figures and only later did I start looking for their earlier albums which almost constantly disappointed me. I think this is their best work, or, at least, the one which I’m most in tune with. I guess what happened is, at some point, they distanced themselves from the more militant side of their music and began focusing on a more descriptive, contemplative aspect. Of what I can deduce from the lyrics, there’s quite a bit of frustration with the state of the world, of Europe, of society and so on, but the music doesn’t incite change, revolt and so on, choosing instead to exquisitely mirror the tension, to highlight and complement it.

The final track is what sold me completely on the record – a 24 minute poem (slam poetry, beat poem, I don’t know, but there’s a kinship for sure), progressive-rocked, jazzy, hip-hopped, convoluted and syncopated, impeccably paced and unforgettable. There’s such life in this song, so much text, subtext, meta-text, reference and cascade that I can’t help but state it’s probably the most impressive thing I’ve heard in French music since Debussy. And all of this with such fine crafting that one doesn’t even need to really comprehend the lyrics, because the madness, the tension still comes across just as clearly.

Like I said at the start, I can’t really explain my fascination with this record, it’s probably the only one of its kind I can enjoy so much, allowing for the possibility that there actually are others of its kind. Today was a weird day indeed when I woke up with L’Europe in mind. It hasn’t happened since 2007. I couldn’t miss the chance to write about it. So, I leave you with Noir Désir’s final album (Bertrand Cantat’s story is a rather bleak one, the aftermath of which left the band unable to function and they’ve officially been disbanded since the 30th of November 2010… now that I think about it, it’s a bit odd I would remember them almost precisely one year after their official break-up, but that isn’t nearly the weirdest coincidence story I’ve got about music *teaser*), hoping that maybe you’ll help me figure out this fascination. See you tomorrow!

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