Jacques Brel, Georges Brassens, Édith Piaf, Charles Aznavour, Léo Ferré, Serge Gainsbourg, and… Iggy Pop? With the release of Préliminaires, Pop aims to join the French chanson tradition without losing sight of his past. While the results are repetitive and uneven at times, the album represents a welcome subversion of expectations from the so-called Godfather of Punk.
On first glance, the idea of Iggy Pop recording an album inspired by French author Michel Houellebecq’s 2005 novel The Possibility of an Island seems curious. (Whether or not the novel in question is racist propaganda is another matter.) Pop’s career with the Stooges and as a solo artist has largely revolved around a celebration of aggressive guitars, animalistic howls, and caveman rhythms. Base desires and bleak futures permeate the lyrics of career highlights Raw Power, Fun House, The Idiot, and Lust for Life. To paraphrase his stance, he’s dirt and he don’t care. This depraved Iggy Pop, rolling in the gutters of Hollywood and patrolling old Berlin for his next fix, is burned into the public imagination, for better or worse. The wild man Iggy Pop of previous records is not one for books, learning, foreign language, or high-minded pursuits in general. Despite some mainstream balladry on “Candy” with Kate Pierson from the B-52s and periodic work in the world of film, Pop’s image as the prototypical proto-punk deviant has fundamentally endured throughout his long career. With the release of Préliminaires, however, Pop reaches for a level of continental sophistication far removed from the majority of his life’s work. It therefore becomes easy to dismiss this release out of hand as an aberration before even hearing it.
Once delving into the record, however, it becomes clear that Pop relishes operating outside expectations. His passion for the French chanson style is apparent from the outset, and he does it well. The record begins and ends with the standard “Les Feuilles Mortes (Autumn Leaves)”, originally covered by Yves Montand and Édith Piaf. The two versions of this song act as a framing device for the album as a whole, with Pop sing-speaking in French. His voice approaches a croon in the middle section while languid instrumentation sets a smoky mood. The chilled-out mood continues with “I Want to Go to the Beach”, with Pop singing in English this time. The somber, yearning quality of the music speaks to the isolation of the main character from the novel as much as it does for Pop himself, who stated recently, “At one point, I just got sick of listening to idiot thugs with guitars banging out crappy music.”
Abrupt shifts in style hinder the album more than any other characteristic. The first stylistic shift comes with the third track, “King of the Dogs”. The song is a New Orleans jazz-influenced number featuring trumpet, trombone, and clarinet that wobbles and sways over two minutes. Recalling the work of early jazz pioneers Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, Pop imagines himself as a dog free of the responsibilities of human existence. The track offers an interesting counterpoint to the Stooges classic “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, championing dominance and freedom over (willful) submission and bondage.
Although fundamentally different from the preceding tracks, “King of the Dogs” comes close to meshing with the framework of the album given its air of jazzy decadence. Such is not the case with the rocker “Nice to Be Dead”, the silly tongue-in-cheek electro of “Party Time”, and the bluesy “He’s Dead/She’s Alive”. These tracks aren’t as successful as “King of the Dogs” in themselves and don’t match up with the jazz-inflected sense of doom found on the album’s more evocative tracks. “Spanish Coast”, a cover of “How Insensitive”, and the spoken word “A Machine for Loving”, however, seem more in line in with the type of sedated, apocalyptic isolation that inspired Pop to write these tracks in the first place. These songs find a parallel mood to the tradition of French chanson but retain Pop’s originality and spirit.
While the repetition of “Les Feuilles Mortes” seems partially necessary as a framing device, the repetition of “Je Sais Que Tu Sais” as “She’s a Business” later in the album just seems lazy. The former stands as a more effective marriage of the modern French chanson style and Pop’s caveman approach than the latter, which eschews the breathy female vocals in French that make the track interesting in the first place. At least these repetitions are relatively brief, as only one of the 12 tracks on the album cracks the four-minute mark.
Although Préliminaires has some effective moments, it comes off as an underdeveloped exercise that needs refinement. Ironically, one of Iggy Pop’s greatest assets is his unabashed lack of refinement, but I can’t fault the dog for trying new tricks.