At times the art of pop-music brings back memories of the art of perfume. It may call for quite an amount of raw material to reach the tightest result. Text, arrangements, combinations: it takes a lot of wandering around, erasing, editing, synthesizing; a real distillation of a process. Not that the product is evanescent though. More of a mingled core whose consistency makes you turn over on someone's trail, and think about the fleetingness of time.
For, it is not meant to last. It usually relies on the fluctuations of the Top 40. And, once again, it takes a lot of albums to make a trend, of which only a few will stand the test of time. When it is not danceable, its usual adolescent existentialism might only serve its listeners transitionally. How many synthpop or grunge LPs are still considered as standouts?
Anyway, Alain Bashung's L'Imprudence, published in 2002, has nothing to do with trends. And if it is dated by technological possibilities, it is more on an experimental basis, taking advantage of the studio tools to produce what is arguably France's best pop album of the century so far. The fact that it is still very important proves that its scent was not one of triviality, but instead that it managed to transcend its own context of creation and reach us today. And the analogy with perfume might help us understand what is at work in here.
First, take an enormous amount of text by you and your long-time writing-partner Jean Fauque. I mean, like a hundred or more pages. Then, cut inside it and juxtapose the phrases in a collage method to have the best possible lyrics for 10 songs, deconstructed to the point of abstraction, that could deal with any of the intense feelings that meander between oneself and the other (shame, fear, jealousy, sense of injustice, etc.).
Once it is done, record only the voice, half-sung/half-spoken, and give it to a few musicians that will work upon that, without giving them too many precise directions about what you have in mind, much like Mark Hollis did (your reference point) on Talk Talk's last albums, radicalizing the process instituted on your previous record, 1998's Fantaisie Militaire.
When the basis (harmony, rhythm, programming, whatever gives the ghost of a structure) for the song is made, recruit some great unconventional musicians from outside, like Martyn Barker on drums and percussions, Simon Edwards (who worked notably on Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock) on all kind of bass, Marc Ribot and Arto Lindsay on guitars, and Steve Nieve on keyboards. Make them jam together around the themes, using the studio as a true instrument, hoping for accidents, surprising sound effects (mechanic chains, prepared pianos, all sorts of objects), trying special methods of engineering (like through a bowl of water for instance). Everything in fact to avoid the usual verse/chorus format, with its repetitive arrangements, in favor of a more cinematic construction, the percussion entering and leaving the stage, one instrument among others in charge of the soundtrack, with constant shifts of direction and uninterpretable noises, opening new possibilities in the silence they break , no clear structure but instrumental variations continuing the tracks long after they are over, miming the (dys)functioning of the brain immersed in dangerously affective areas. When the montage is over, come alone to the studio to record the vocals in first-take, add sparse layers of strings and horns to strengthen the dramatic effect, and there you have it, a distinctive masterpiece that will reign for many years.
And indeed, during its 66 minutes, L'Imprudence appears to be the definitive synthesis between American rock music and French Impressionistic composers from the beginning of the 20th century (whose influence was already huge on Mark Hollis), with a bit of electronically-based rhythms here or there, and a real literary quality to the lyrics (on top of the 10 mentioned, there is one text co-written with French songwriter Christophe Miossec, another one that is a poem by French Surrealist Robert Desnos, "Jamais d'autre que toi”, and the last song on the record, eponymous "L'Imprudence”, is actually a 10 minute live-in-the-studio version of the first track, "Tel”, quietly ending the album full circle in the most uncluttered way, with more space than ever given to silence between the notes).
This is a very cohesive, focused album, built on the same warm tones and live feeling, vocal variations at micro level, turning around the same patterns with sudden melodic flashes that never miss to blow the listener away, the whole picture being desperate but sensual at the same time. There is no point discussing at length the tracks separately here in detail, even if each has its own distinctive feel, offering its share of treasures: "Tel”, a call for taking on chance and carelessness, and its shivering central melody that gathers the instruments in its wake and leads them to a fantastic unified finale, "Faites monter”, the rockiest track, and its breathless shifting from binary to ternary, "Je me dore” where the harmonica rubs shoulders with a romantic piano against a backdrop of strings and a mixture of what seems to be brushes, electronic drums and guitar feedback, "Mes bras” and its extended piano outro, "La Ficelle” and its metronomic path surrounded by deconstructed layers of guitar and strings, while the voice, more expressive than ever, recalls, when the melody appears, a less theatrical and elastic version of Bashung's other model Scott Walker, "Noir de monde” and its incredible sentences dealing with the negation of memory over a floating time pulse, "L'iréel” and its very Ravelian rise of strings, "Jamais d'autre que toi” where the free-rock playing echoes the image collisions from Desnos' poem, "Est-ce aimer” where the perfection of the strings is constantly destroyed by Marc Ribot's dirty guitar, "Le Dimanche à Tchernobyl” (maybe the closest thing here to songwriting in the traditional sense, with its magnificent chord progression supporting the distant melody recorded through an old mic) that plays with the double meaning of verb "irradiate”, "Dans la foulée”, nervous electro-jazz tribute to French athlete Marie-Jo Perec, who had just been torn to pieces by the media at the time, the dreamy achievement "Faisons envie” where the spoken voice is split between many takes that elide upon a stable shore of delicate but intricate drops of sound, and finally the late-night "L'Imprudence”, where the crackling of the old microphone can be heard dying at the very end of the record.
Alain Bashung experienced fame and all its excesses, all of which give a blend of extreme assurance and doubts, without which L'Imprudence would never have been possible. It is a rare example of a pop-rock star going into an experimental process (which is also hinted at in the title of the record), and providing a fantastic piece of art, in which the laboratory is not hidden, but exposed for what it is: a fragile tension between structure and dissolution, thanks to the collaborative blind performance. Amazingly, around the same time Marc Ribot participated in two other albums from well-known pop artists that wanted to work not much as arrangers as usual, but more as composers for a more improvisational, live-based, studio work: David Sylvian's 1999 Dead bees on a cake, and Joe Henry's 2001 Scar (featuring Ornette Coleman among others). Three albums are not enough to make a trend (well, we could add Beth Gibbons' 2002's Out of Season, in collaboration with Rustin Man aka. Paul Webb from Talk Talk, later replaced by Simon Edwards on Laughing Stock), but Bashung's might be the most enduring, visionary one. Where Sylvian's was notable for its particularly organic use of sampling, building his own structures (in accordance with his most famous Japan-era single) on "ghosts” of more or less old songs, where Henry offered a crepuscular synthesis of 20th century's American's jazz and blues music, Alain Bashung produced with L'Imprudence a visceral extension to Mark Hollis' late Talk Talk modus operandi, even more detached from the song format, with a denser, more dramatic tone. He would not top that on his next record, 2008's brighter and more avoidable Bleu pétrole, and died before being able to produce the real follow-up to L'Imprudence he had in mind. But this album's consistency will stay. I thank him for that.