[29 March 2009]
Over 40 years after the Beatles decided that recording their hits in German was silly, pop music still seems uncertain about how to come to terms with its inherent Anglocentrism. The cultural dominance of two consecutive Anglophone empires has made English the lingua franca (ah, l’ironie!) of worldwide capitalist entertainment; any cultural form based at least partly in language must choose a language, and it can hardly be surprising when the chosen language is the hegemonic one. Domestic markets for music sung in local languages still have their niches, but success on a global scale presupposes Anglophonic lyrics. Exceptions to the rule abound, from “99 Luftballons” to the chorus of “Lady Marmalade” to Sigur Rós, but these are just that: exceptions.
A more limited exception to this is Malajube, a Francophone indie-rock group from Montreal who burst to prominence in Canada (and to some limited awareness Stateside) with their 2006 release, Trompe-l’oeil. The album got a Polaris Prize nod, and its infectious breakthrough single “Montreal -40°C” popped up in a wireless ad, that 21st-century equivalent of a top-40 single. Malajube’s success was less a confirmation of Canada’s self-hyped bilingualism than it was a vindication of the band’s restless and modern brand of ambitious pop. Like Sigur Rós, Malajube crosses linguistic barriers at the primal aesthetic level that makes music a universal form of expression, to drag up a hoary old cliché that nonetheless rings true. You don’t need to speak French to comprehend the breadth of loss contained in Trompe-l’oeil standout “Étienne d’août”; it’s palpable in every stretched minor chord. The music, as the band’s keyboardist Thomas Augustin put it, “talks to people”.
Give Malajube credit, then, for letting its music speak in different voices on their latest effort, Labyrinthes. The trademarks of Trompe-l’oeil remain potent. Julien Mineau’s lead vocals are drugged into somnambulant jouissance, and the arrangements can veer from those dreamier tones into fin-du-monde barrages with nary a warning. Lead track “Ursuline” opens with chamber synths reminiscent of “Lose Yourself”, a not-inappropriate invocation considering the chugging pugilistic epic that it becomes over its almost-seven-minute runtime. It’s not as stunning as it sets out to be, but its head is firmly in the clouds. It relents and lets the poppy single “Porté disparu” take over. One gets the very occasional feeling when listening to Malajube that they would be a fairly uninspiring and generic indie combo if they didn’t sing in French. That feeling is all over both this song and “Luna”, which follows it to little effect. Still, their Franco-alterity pulls them out of the fire.
Fortunately, Labyrinthes has a hefty midsection. “Casablanca” has no top or bottom, floating effortlessly in the ether. The guitar breaks take expansive baroque patterns before exploding into tactfully-brief cornball power-ballad glory in the lightning-quick closing crescendo. “333” brings Trail of Dead-style harsh grandeur on a tour of La belle province before fading out into wobbly slides. “Les collemboles” is the requisite irresistible indie anthem, its refrain plunging into dance-rock hi-hats and keyboard melody hooks and yet remaining glorious despite its predictability. It ends in a wind-swirled debris field of electronic washes and power-chord machetes and segues into the gorgeous and brisk “Hérésie”. “On expire”, Mineau breathes out – or is he dying? It’s short and sweet, and the album’s invigorating spirit escapes with it. “Le tout-puissant” and closing instrumental “Christobald” have little of unique character to offer, and then it’s over.
Malajube, by their own admission, aim to make music that “talks to people”, evidently across linguistic and cultural lines. Contained in their transcendence of pop’s Anglophonic predominance is an insistent appeal to de Saussurean linguistic theory. Malajube seek to make the key distinction between langue and parole, between the terms on which meaning is expressed and the discourse employed within that language to express it. Labyrinthes has a larger point beyond its mostly-successful crafting of songs: the crafting of the songs is the point, not the language in which they are crafted. The langue can be overcome if the parole is strong enough. They are not the only artists aiming to put this across, of course, but they are once again quite successful at it.