Caetano Veloso’s 1973 album Araçá Azul is as defiantly unconventional and challenging as Godard’s pioneering New Wave classic Breathless (1960), altering the possibilities and expectations of his chosen medium.
Caetano Veloso and Jean-Luc Godard don't seem to have much in common -- one is a Brazilian musician and the other a French filmmaker. But comparing their work reveals a shared artistic vision. In its own way, Veloso’s 1973 album Araçá Azul is as defiantly unconventional and challenging as Godard’s pioneering New Wave classic Breathless (1960), altering the possibilities and expectations of his chosen medium.
Veloso, who had been living in exile in London since 1968, returned to Brazil in 1972 and began recording Araçá Azul. His four previous albums primarily explored his love for MPB (Música Popular Brasileira) with a vibe that steered away from the traditional Brazilian sound. The grooves of Araçá Azul took this further; the album is a melting pot of the American and British influence Veloso attained while in London along with the traditional Bahian sound of his earlier influences such as Dorival Caymmi and the off-key singing of Joao Gilberto.
In his book, Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution In Brazil, Veloso describes the first time he saw Breathless: “I came away amazed at the supple rhythm and the poetry of atmosphere; it was shot more elegantly than an Antonioni film, yet it did not seem so rigidly controlled.” Araçá Azul seems to have been made in a similar spirit. “Sugar Cane Fields Forever” starts off with a bleak howl over a semi-atonal rhythmic flow, which slowly melds into a traditional bossa-nova rhythm similar to what was introduced to America by Marcel Camus’ Oscar-winning Black Orpheus (1959). But the track soon finds its way into a mess of free-jazz inspired horn work and atonal string sections -- all lead by Veloso’s soft-spoken vocal phrasing.
This becomes the formula for the entire album -- Veloso offers the listener a sense of familiarity with Joao Gilberto inspired balladry, then pushes them to challenge themselves as listeners with a variety of oddball rhythms, layered vocal experimentations, unrelenting horn blasts, and an immersion into moments of psychedelia. All the while, Veloso keeps a supple rhythm and specific atmosphere built – much in the way Breathless did.
Breathless and Araçá Azul were both sugar-coated in Western culture during their conception. The horn arrangements on “Epico” feel directly related to the dramatic cinema scores of the late 1950s and early 60s, a time when Veloso himself wanted to be a filmmaker. On the same track, bells and whistles are layered over a sample of highway traffic, an experiment seemingly derived from the Beatles' Sgt. Peppers experimentations. Fuzz-saturated garage psychedelia seeps through during “Quero Essa Muhler Assim Mesmo,” paying reverence to the sounds of Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and, of course, Jimi Hendrix. Likely, Veloso introduced by Os Mutantes to a wealth of this music during the time they spent together in the late 1960s.
Godard drew heavily from American cinema and paid homage to Hollywood stars such as Humphrey Bogart throughout Breathless. In France and America, the way the characters defined themselves in relation to American culture modeled much of what the “generation of Marx and Coca-Cola” were looking for. In a time when the beat generation and the existentialism of Jean Paul-Sartre and Albert Camus were just about spent as elements of the zeitgeist, Godard’s Breathless presented the lifestyle the youthful generation all wanted to live: not just to be existential, but also suspenseful, hip, irrational, unconventional human beings -- everything that went into the image of a counterculture.
Godard’s jump-cut technique throughout Breathless, which has become a ubiquitous in reality shows as a means of building tension, has its sonic analogue in Veloso’s Araçá Azul. The track sequencing swings rapidly between incongruous styles, taking listeners from an exploration of vocal layering to traditional Bahia music. These abrupt transitions are comparable to the way Godard used fragmented soundtracks. He would begin music and cut it out without any resolution, just as Veloso was doing through the entire duration of Araçá Azul. The songs never meld, yet they challenge a listener to keep up, to think of the form rather than lose themselves in the music. Though not as pervasive as Godard's visual innovations, Veloso's influence within the Tropicalia movement has carried on to musicians working in today’s folk world, like Devendra Banhart, whose albums feature jolting transitions and atypical song structures.
Like Godard, who in Breathless rejected the confines of the traditional studio and shot on location in the streets, Veloso (along with Os Mutantes) encouraged listeners to regard the recording process itself an art form. Sampling from field recordings, and using different microphone techniques to produce different timbre quality and frequency responses, Veloso brought avant-garde song form to the level of Godard's experimentation with film making methods.
Both Godard and Veloso were fortunate enough to have a significant audience paying attention to their work. Araçá Azul and Breathless were made at critical turning points in the histories of their mediums, and both stand as testaments to the innovative approaches of their creators.