Balthazar singer and multi-instrumentalist Maarten Devoldere makes a wish upon a Jim Thompson novel for his debut as Warhaus.
First things first: the title. We Fucked a Flame Into Being is certainly among the most ostentatious names one could choose for his solo debut, but Maarten Devoldere (of Balthazar fame) appears to find it only natural. He chose the title, taken from D.H. Lawrence's infamous novel Lady Chatterly's Lover, because it "was too good to pass on!" Whatever one's opinion of Lawrence's prose, Devoldere is right about one thing: We Fucked a Flame Into Being is a good title, precisely because it draws one's eye right to the black-and-white sleeve art of Devoldere's debut LP as Warhaus. On its own, the cover image of Devoldere with accompanying singer Sylvie Kresuch is not too striking; it most resembles a tabloid photo put atop a tell-all exposé piece. But this otherwise normal album cover has the words We Fucked a Flame Into Being printed on it in magenta lettering. With a title like that, Warhaus' debut advertises itself.
Once one actually puts the needle on the groove of We Fucked a Flame Into Being, Warhaus doesn't stop grabbing its audience's attention -- although the music isn't exactly what the title advertises. The record isn't loaded with allusions to late Victorian and Modernist literature, nor are its lyrics replete with sexually explicit poetry. Culturally, We Fucked a Flame Into Being mines from a time period almost 50 years after the height of D.H. Lawrence's career: the golden age of film noir. The bulk of Warhaus' debut reeks of whiskey fumes and cigarette smoke, and moves with the sultry strut of a femme fatale. The black-and-white aesthetic that Devoldere has built the album around -- as can be seen on the sleeve art and in the music video for lead single "The Good Lie" -- further places Warhaus in the legacy of Dashiell Hammett and Jim Thompson.
The first five songs on the album, which typify this noirish songwriting approach, are uniformly excellent. The dog-bark trumpets on album highlight "Against the Rich", which also crop up on the swanky instrumental "Beaches", get their sound from Devoldere's unique recording process, which largely took place on a tugboat. (To see this in action, check out PopMatters' premiere of the making-of documentary for We Fucked a Flame Into Being, entitled I'm Not Him.) Groovy basslines make "The Good Lie" and "Leave With Me" ideal numbers for a jazz club dancefloor; that ambiance, mixed with Devoldere's scratchy croon and Kresuch's airy backup vocals, makes for a tantalizing sonic noir. "Beaches" is the sonic equivalent of putting on sunglasses a la David Caruso, which results in a nice bookending of the first half of We Fucked a Flame Into Being. Five songs in, and the listener is already in the middle of a noir that Elmore Leonard could have written.
Production-wise, We Fucked a Flame Into Being is fairly consistent in its old-school aspirations, but sonically it takes a noticeable shift after "Beaches". "Machinery" is a minor take on the James Bond theme aesthetic. Devoldere channels the Rolling Stones circa Tattoo You with the sing-along chorus of "Memory", one of the more successful entries in the record's latter half. Two string-backed reflective songs, "Bruxelles" and "Time and Again", bring We Fucked a Flame Into Being to a low simmer. This record is more about muted suspense than it is bursts of noise -- the trumpets on "Against the Rich" and "Beaches" notwithstanding -- but the album still sags in its last moments.
It's hard to say whether or not a direct continuation of the aesthetic established by We Fucked a Flame Into Being's first half would have made the second half much better. Devoldere is clearly aiming at variations on a theme for this LP's second side, which does result in some successful tunes, "Memory" notably. But given just how tightly written and self-contained the first five songs are on We Fucked a Flame Into Being, it's immediately noticeable when the music takes a turn away from that sonic. This isn't to say that the stretch from "I'm Not Him" to "Beaches" is spotless; lyrically, Devoldere hits some rough patches, such as this metrically and morally off-putting couplet in "Against the Rich": "I've got one hand on a champagne-drinking cunt / I've got the other up the ass of the establishment." Nevertheless, there's an argument to be made that We Fucked a Flame Into Being would have been stronger as a five-track EP, rather than the lopsided full-length LP that it currently is.
Warhaus is not alone in its noir throwback stylings; We Fucked a Flame Into Being brings to mind the 2013 debut of New Zealand crooner Willy Moon, the "Wu-Tang meets Sinatra" LP Here's Willy Moon. Moon and Warhaus diverge in on the matter of production technique; while Devoldere aimed to recreate the mood and acoustics of a '50s jazz club, Moon slathered Here's Willy Moon with a glossy coat, illustrating with a heavy hand his "old is new again" approach. Some differences aside, Moon and Warhaus illustrate that there really is something eternal about the sound of noir. Whether repackaged in a pop gloss (Moon) or revived with plumes of cigar smoke (Warhaus), music noir is still ripe for exploration. Devoldere takes an admirable step in that direction with We Fucked a Flame Into Being, an imperfect first outing that nonetheless shines with the promise of something better ahead.