With a nigh-35 year career that spans pop, post-punk, New Wave, and chanson, it would be wise to state that French heartthrob Étienne Daho is one of – if not the – most successful French artists to cross into the English mainstream. Les Chansons De L’Innocence Retrouvée, translated as Songs Of Innocence Regained, was released for the French market in 2013. Based on the works of English poet and painter William Blake, Les Chansons is a standard French pop album that stands out neither in the chanson genre nor Daho’s career, but is enjoyable nonetheless for the sheer richness of composition and the power of Daho’s voice.
Les Chansons is bathed in strings, and to great effect. Un Nouveau Printemps is positively cinematic, recalling the works of François Truffaut, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Sven Holm. The backing musicians on opener Le Baiser Du Destin have somewhat of an American big band feel, with the sounds of Frank Sinatra and Michael Bublé being the closest analogues.
That soft rock and easy listening format of Les Chansons may turn off listeners; and indeed, there are few ways to push or experiment with either genre. Unless the listener swears by the adult contemporary format, Les Chansons is certainly an album where there is little to be gained from full run-throughs or repeated tracks. However, Daho does his best to provide some individual flair: Un Nouveau Printemps’ eerie strings and syncopated percussion would easily fit in with French New Wave cinema or work as a trip-hop sample. Les Chansons De L’Innocence’s bass line and vague electronic effects evoke Air; the song is a welcome collaboration between Daho and dream pop trio Au Revoir Simone.
If this album doesn’t demonstrate Daho’s Serge Gainsbourg influence, then nothing in his discography does so. The fickle strings and effervescent rock instrumentation are there on tracks Les Torrents Défendus and Un Bonheur Dangereux. Additionally, Daho’s baritone is one of the most seductive sounds in Western Europe. Onze Mille Vierges and Le Baiser Du Destin are spine-tinglingly sexy. No matter the actual song quality, Étienne Daho takes off clothes, and he doesn’t waste time with it.
However, as alluded to previously, the album rehashes too many ideas to be as captivating as its intent belies. L’Homme Qui Marche and L’Etrangére have nothing that was not done far better on Les Chansons De L’Innocence and Les Torrents Défendus. Female vocals? Check. Syncopated beat? Check. Double-tracked filters? Check. Anything new? No check. La Malentendu’s arpeggiated strings were copied and pasted from Un Nouveau Printemps, and the establishing piano chords are no different from L’Homme Qui Marche, minor chord notwithstanding.
Too many tracks are unfinished ideas: En Surface’s percussion is boring, and the guitars have none of the phasing, affect, nor climax that makes Le Baiser Du Destin such an incredibly strong beginning for the album. La Peau Dure is basically pop fodder without any of the heart that makes chanson music so pleasurable to foreign ears. L’Etrangére never quite edges into the danceability it so desires.
Les Chansons De L’Innocence Retrouvée would be much stronger had half the tracks been cut and the album released as an EP, or at least reworked some ideas out of the confines of middle-of-the-road pop music. Stick to the cuts on this one: Le Baiser Du Destin, Un Nouveau Printemps, Les Torrents Défendus, Un Bonheur Dangereux, and Les Chansons De L’Innocence. There isn’t much to be had otherwise. And even still, the strength of orchestral compositions – as light as they are – and Daho’s ageless voice are worth an ear or two. A bit more time fleshing out ideas would be nice; but otherwise, when he makes a hit, Étienne Daho is a French pop master.