On this new album, his eighteenth if you count live recordings, best-of compilations, and the EP that he put out in collaboration with the British band St. Etienne in 1995, Étienne Daho sings in a rough-textured whisper that moves like a pat of hot butter sliding down a wall. It slides through the title track, poked along by rapid bursts of clapping. This clap is like a flamenco clap, but a flamenco clap that has been stripped of everything that makes flamenco dirty and tough, and is instead polished and buffed and processed until the disembodied hands are slapping themselves together in a no-man’s-land between machine and human. The butter voice slides over rich, lightly sinister violin arrangements in “L’adorer”. It slides past a lonely triangle in “Un Merveilleux Été” and a tambourine in “Sur la Terre Comme au Ciel”. It slides past the sound of guitars being strummed. Sometimes the guitars have a faintly country sound, and sometimes they sound like a milder version of one of those mainstream American rock bands that make a career out of appearing edgy to teenage boys. It never seems to hurry, this sliding voice, even when the song around it is moving quickly. It curls and purrs. It breathes in and out like a waiting cat.
The voice implies both dryness and lushness. Dryness in the husk, and lushness in the purr. There’s intimacy in Daho’s whisper. There’s frankness. There’s a candid tone. He has the easy appeal of other great French pop-purrers, although an English-speaking listener whose only point of contact with this style of singing is the remembered sound of Serge Gainsbourg murmuring, “Je vais et je viens, entre tes reins,” at Jane Birkin on “Je T’aime (Moi Non Plus)” is going to come away from this album wondering why there wasn’t more sex in it. Most of L’invitation doesn’t sound as if it’s pointed at the bedroom. This is pop at its least vulgar. It’s well-polished music with streams of semi-formal strings and songs in which the intimacy sounds autobiographical rather than sexy, as if Étienne Daho is a close friend phoning you in the middle of the night with news of some misfortune that occurred to him at dinner. “Ah, now, let me tell you a story, an interesting thought I had earlier …” and then he explains himself to you for the next half hour in that dusty, rueful sigh.
He manages to seem thoughtful, even when the music accompanying him has those overtones of watered-down rock or watered-down country, or, in a few places, watered-down funk. Without his voice, a track like “La Vie Continuera” would be just another light pop song with little impact, pulling its punches in the percussion. Devoid of Daho, the songs wouldn’t sound French, they wouldn’t have any particular nationality at all, they could have come from Japan, England, Sweden, Australia, or any other place where Euro-pop has penetrated and can be imitated. The borrowed ethno-clapping in “L’invitation” gets the album off to a good start, but it’s so obviously not flamenco, so evidently sampled and placeless, that if you didn’t have the CD cover in front of you with French all over it then you’d be waiting with bated breath, wondering what language the singer would start singing in when he finally opened his mouth. Musically this album occupies a spot in my brain of no nationality, almost a blind spot. I enjoy it while it’s on, but once it’s off I can barely remember a thing.