[21 March 2014]
The world outside Françoise Hardy’s window in the early ‘70s must have been almost unrecognizable to that in which she’d made her fortune as France’s Première “Yé-Yé” girl of ‘60s pop. Particularly following the jaw-dropping events in Paris, May 1968. The month that began with 20,000 students taking on the hard-as-nails French Gendarmerie ended with a million Parisians practically chasing President De Gaulle out of town. Almost overnight the swinging sixties were toast and in its place a chin-stroking “New Seriousness”. But there were also possibilities for new beginnings. Luckily for Hardy—fêted muse of Dylan, Jagger, Chanel, Godard and the epitome of the ‘Modern Woman’—she was no mere pop puppet and had written much of her own material, which even at its bounciest was laced with a sting of enigmatic fragility. As the groovy days of mop tops, mini skirts and rose-tinted flower power withered the shy, bookish Hardy declared herself “bored stiff” with the shallow phoniness of celebrity and semi-retired from that business we call “show”. Cue the montage of Françoise Hardy’s “Imperial Phase”.
After smartly reinventing herself as an elusive folk rock jazz chanteuse with albums like If You Listen, Soleil, 1970 and the haunting La Question, Hardy began to prepare her 14th album in 1973. On the cusp of her thirties (In pop terms—eek!) and freshly signed to new label WEA, she gave birth to her first child Thomas in June and began recording Message Personnel just a month later. It is perhaps understandable then that the album is one of her most intimately reflective, resolute and liberated but bruised and battleworn.
Slim by modern standards, with all 10 tracks waltzing across your heart in less than half an hour, Message Personnel packs a lot of wise words and big ideas in its deceptively tiny suitcase. Michael Berger, Creative Director at WEA and en flambé after his work on Veronique Sanson’s Amoureuse, produced the record and provided its bookend beauties which both set the quality standard and classy, adult tone of Personnel. Opener “Première Rencontre” is a wee-hours weeper, a piano in the dark tender trap of pining, loss and heartache (“Le mal au coeur”). The unexpected swell of sombre strings and brass midway echoing the Beatles at their most plaintive. But it’s the title track and final destination of Message Personnel which proves the real heartbreaker.
What lies between is a rich, emotive and out-of-time set which ranks amongst Hardy’s very best work. It’s also très magnifique tristesse. The sparse, lonesome acoustics of “L’Attente” are star-sparkled midnight blues with crystalline xylophone teardrops. Hardy perched in her window à la Holly Golightly singing to the moon about that aching, accurs’d prison called “LOVE”. The dreamy, mysterious sway of “On Dirait” is better still showcasing Hardy’s love for brooding English folk music, Nick Drake in particular. Hardy berates her paramour for changing his moods like the weather and fittingly the verses hang sultry and stormy before being broken by the chorus’ warm melodic burst of sunshine. The accordion and piano waltz lullaby “Berceuse” offers the albums most traditional moment though. Its narrator caught at the crossroads, knowing a change’s a-gonna come and hoping for the clocks to stop. Swaying gentle and happy sad it yearns to never grow, never age (“Sans grandir, sans viellir”). Love, happiness and torment walk hand in hand she says.
Though it’s a troubled, introspective album there are playful moments. The charming “Rêver le Nez en L’Air” swings and skips a sunny country hop with an almost Django Reinhardt jazzy guitar flourish. Hardy sounds dizzy and liberated, free to dream, whistle and basically overdose on ice cream (“Manger une ou deux glaces”). “Pouce, Au Revoir” is a sassily stylish but stern Miss Independent’s “Fuck you”. More country flutter with strings its lyrics harbour a harder heart. Leaving behind all the cockroaches and the spineless sheep (“Les gens sont des moutons”) Hardy’s going off the grid, catching the train to anywhere but here. “L’Amour en Privé” was co-written and produced by the highwired genius Serge Gainsbourg and is typically cinematic and saucily provocative. Intercut with his trademark matador whirlwind strings and devilish whispers it finds Hardy in a funky state o’ mind, burning taboos and lusting for kisses everywhere, (“De baisers parout!”). Phwoar! Mon Dieu!
The album closes though with more sedate, melancholic affairs. “L’Habitude”, a dead-eyed jazzy folk duet with Georges Moustaki, appears superficially slight, oddly passionless – they spar in the verses, unite for the chorus – but the lyrics reveal a pair of cell mate lovers bored to tears with each other. Shackled together by a shared fear of loneliness, condemned to ‘Repeat to fade’, their blue skies cold with fading stars. The “Chanson Floue” is sweeter but equally sad with a dreamy Beatlesque melody and fragile flower acoustics. It’s reminiscent of the parting soliloquy from Withnail & I with Richard E. Grant abandoned in the rain similarly kicking against “The impenetrable walls that separate dreams and reality”. Don’t grow up kids, it’s a trap. This is all playdates n’ lemonade though compared to the grande finale. All the winding roads lead to the towering theatrics of “Message Personnel”. It begins with a deluxe ‘Talky Bit Dilemma’ En Française (obviously). An exhausted five minutes to midnight phone call to a lover accompanied by heavenly “La La La” harmonies. Then Hardy suddenly stops. A moment of surrender. She ponders “But if you…?” The music pauses for dramatic effect… then explodes into a curtain-closing cacophony of drums, applause, fireworks and bouncing bouquets. Hardy exits stage left, hails a cab, the band play on and the crowd are on their feet. Now that’s how you get your coat.
This 40th anniversary superhero edition of Message Personnel is worth buying for the album alone naturellement but there’s a pot pourri of trinkets and treasures on a newly compiled second disc. A half dozen instrumental versions of Personnel let the lush orchestration and dashing acoustics take a bow and there are alternate takes in English and German but they often feel emotionally diluted compared to the originals. Stronger is the curiously enchanting gypsy folk of “Wenn Wilde Schwäne Flieh’n” (“When Wild Swans Fly”) which feels like finding Faeries at the bottom of your garden. A quartet of Michael Berger joints unsurprisingly hold the real booty though. The tinderbox soft “Demain C’est Hier” is a heart buried under snow whilst “Je Suis Moi” is a Martyr’s defiant, tear-soaked, ‘Take-it-or-leave-it honey’ Nilsson-esque showstopper. An elegant pair of ‘round the piano’ TV appearances “La Déclaration D’amour” and “Peut-être Toi, Peut-être Moi” finally underline why Berger was a worthy conduit for Hardy’s ambitions just as the mythical Tuca had been on La Question. Steer clear of the grim live 2007 mauling of “Message Personnel” though. Its ridiculously inappropriate mulletastic howler of an axe solo borders on a crime against humanity.
Message Personnel is smart, heart-on-sleeve, luxurious and elegant pop music for grown-ups. Now 70, Hardy continues to make sophisticated music of quality but there’s something in those early 70’s records like this and the arguably superior La Question that remains magical, untouchable, consistently influential and thus perhaps even quietly revolutionary. A Message in a bottle washed ashore under the neon lights of the 21st century perhaps but like all great records Personnel is not faded by age but arrives ever radiant and true. The cover artwork is still a bit dodgy though.