Vanessa Daou’s newest batch of material (her seventh solo release) finds the singer in much higher spirits after the contemplative, lugubrious jazz of 2008’s Joe Sent Me. Light Sweet Crude (Act 1: Hybrid) has the singer leaving the safe, comfortable confines of the bedroom for the thrill of the nightclub once again, a welcome return to her dance music days that offered such hits like “Near the Black Forest” and “Two to Tango”, songs which became anthems for the late-night crowds. Daou has often professed her admiration for Françoise Hardy, citing the French pop singer as an influence that has strongly informed her work in the years throughout. But Daou’s spicily romantic flirtations with pop lean a lot closer to Jane Birkin’s heavy-breathing blues, the erotic pulse of risqué refrains being one of the many threads that bind these two in the sometimes playful and divisive realms of popular music.
Like Birkin, Daou has made a career on exploiting the taboos of sexual desire. But where Birkin’s music has often employed a humour both ribald and daring (thanks to her co-conspirator and songwriter, Serge Gainsbourg), Daou aims for something more serious. The politically-minded Light Sweet Crude, written during the times of the Arab spring and Occupy movements, seeks to marry the practices of sexual discourse with the anxieties of political strife consuming every corner of the world. “Break Me”, an eerie, ominous death-march of programmed military-snares, could either be the sordid account of a disturbed woman’s desire to be ravished or a chilling narrative of a deadly revolutionary stalking his intended victim. This double-narrative also finds its way into numbers like “Trouble Comes”, a slippery groove heralding the sense of oncoming danger in both a romantic liaison and a street riot. In “Love is War”, the singer equates the trials of divorce with war.
Even in the lush respite of “Bar D’O”, Daou cannot remain apolitical in her positions on love: a meeting in a bar in a hypothetical limbo world has the singer discussing her ambivalent views on relationships with a former lover. Here, the adage that the personal is political becomes a looming truth, much to the singer’s repudiation of the verities suggested by her more pragmatic lover. Politics take a poisonous and far more personal turn on “Love Affair”, with Daou trying to guiltily justify an act of infidelity with a married man. The realization that there is no fair play in love dawns on her in a most inopportune moment. These conceptual trappings may sound heady, but this is, after all, a dance album and there are plenty of grooves to sustain the pumping rush of adrenaline.
Hedonistic surges like “Danger Ahead”, “Chances”, “Love is War” and “Trouble Comes” ensure a full dance-floor. But the polemic musings are never far behind and Daou reminds us that choices, be they political or sexual, are based solely on desire. “Goodbye”, a reimagining of a soured love affair between an ingénue and a dictator, is a gritty, nocturnal, excursion into a setpiece based on some imaginary memoir by a spurned socialite. Daou signatures the number with a most distinguishing skill in her lyrical artillery: that of sexual redress. Nothing says “tough gonads” like men denied their candy of promised sex. It’s like Frida Kahlo penning her farewell letter to Leon Trotsky and signing it “Fuck You”.