Je voudrais écrire une version bilingue de cette critique de musique, mais ma maîtrise de l’argot québécois est limité et la plupart de mes lecteurs viennent des États-Unis. S’il vous plaît pardonnez-moi et mes compatriotes pour nos limitations.
For those of you who do not read French, the above paragraph explains why this review will not be bilingual: I’m not well-versed enough in Québécois slang to express the things I need to express. I also implied that Americans are a bunch of Yahoos for remaining stubbornly monolingual.
Insulting your primary audience is always a great way to start a review!
Let me justify my insolent attitude regarding American language skills. My mother arrived here in the 1960’s from La Belle France to attend college at UC Berkeley. While there she met my father (a tall, skinny bloke of Irish-American descent) and fell in love with his combination of a lean, hungry bod and progressive social consciousness (radicalism was very sexy at the time). They wound up living together and decided to get married (even though it was so bourgeois) because my mother wanted to stay in The States.
Blessed with a French mother, I learned to speak French at an early age, something that allowed me to minor in French in college, skip most of the classes to party and fuck, and still ace every exam. You can hear the French in my voice only when I have to deal with what we call the short “i” in American English. For example, I don’t say “window sill,” I say “window seal.”
I once asked my mother why she decided to stay in the U. S. A. and she said, “Because Americans are so funny.” That was certainly a double entendre, for while she finds aspects of American culture hilarious, she also considers much of its moral context ridiculous. If you’ve ever been to France and had a night out sitting on a sidewalk café, you’ll see adults drinking, smoking and having a good time right in front of their children, something you never see here, particularly in the politically correct states. She brought that attitude with her, which was great for me, because as a kid I went nearly everywhere they went, inhabiting the adult world long before my prime.
My mother also allowed me to drink wine at an early age and actually taught me how to smoke! She wanted me to do it properly, with class and allure. I love my mother! I love the French!
And I particularly love the sound of a woman singing in French. I have hundreds of tracks from French-speaking female vocalists: Edith Piaf, Karin LeClerq, Camille, Pauline Croze, Charline Rose, Françoise Hardy. Most of these fall into the category of French Pop, but I really don’t care. A woman singing in French sounds sexy even if she’s singing the owner’s manual of your automobile. Still, I’d never found one who could combine the beauty of the French language with kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll.
Until I found Anik Jean.
Anik Jean describes herself as many things: songwriter, composer, performer, director, actress, dreamer. Based on my experience with Schizophrène, I would describe Anik Jean as an extraordinary artist blessed with one of the most beautiful and flexible voices I’ve ever heard. She can sing kick-ass rock with total command and dial it down for the softer pieces. She is the antithesis of politically correct (a quality that has given her the “bad girl” label and made her somewhat controversial in Quebec) but infuses her music with no-bullshit honesty that is refreshing, erotic and, at times, heart-wrenching. Schizophrène is a powerful record on many levels, and even if you don’t speak a word of French, her music and voice will command your attention (eight songs are in French, one in English and one is a hybrid). I learned through a review of her launch performance in Montreal that she performs Schizophrène in various characters, complete with costume changes. This was a very helpful piece of information, as the songs on Schizophrène describe such vastly different perspectives that I had a hard time at first trying to synthesize it all into a coherent whole; now I understand that these songs are either manifestations of different sides of a complex personality or separate characters entirely . . . or both.
But from a pure musical perspective, it doesn’t matter. I repeat, even if you are not versed in the French language, Schizophrène will knock you on your ass.
The album opens darkly but with fabulous driving intensity in the song “Mes démons” (“My demons”). We first hear Anik as if she is singing from the wings of the theater, then the band bursts into action with a no-bullshit relentless driving rhythm that nonetheless fails to overwhelm Anik’s extraordinary voice. The lyrics (co-written with her mari, Patrick Huard) describe a woman of irresolvable contradictions urging her current lover to leave her, in part because of her belief that it would be impossible for anyone to understand her, and in part because she’s afraid to allow someone to get so close. I’ve been there! Anik’s voice fucking soars in the chorus, “si tu m’aimes encore, quitte-moi” (if you still love me, leave me). It’s a bravura performance and a stunning opener.
Anik shows off her range by dropping into the lower octaves for the next song, “Fuck le danse” (no translation necessary). The review mentioned above described this song as being performed by “Kina, avenger from the shadows,” which certainly captures both the tone and message of the lyrics. The song is a biting attack on the whole dance club scene with its faux eroticism fueled by chicks with “copier-coller (copy-and-paste) fake boobs” and music driven by robotic voices. Her tone is a perfect “Fuck this, what is this shit?” throughout the song, indicating she knows very well how to stay in character (and that she is a thoroughly committed rock-and-roller). “Fuck le danse” is followed by “Minable” (“Shabby”), a fast, gothic rocker where the narrator dares the world to judge her, then calmly but forcefully confirms her defiant belief in herself. This is one of the most dramatic arrangements on the album, and I’d love to see it in all its theatrical glory.
The tone shifts dramatically with the piano ballad, “À la vie, à la mort” (“To life, to death”), a passionate ode to a lover. What makes this song rise above the status of garden-variety love song is the context of the narrator finding her lover in one of his darkest moments and pledging not only loyalty but judgment-free understanding and unconditional love. Anik’s vocal is pure tenderness and compassion, but still possessed with passion and power. That passion and power takes on a different manifestation in the hard punk-rhythm rocker, “Liste Noire” (“Blacklist”), a conversation with one’s alter-ego that features the best power vocal I’ve heard from a woman since Line Dahlmann’s performance on “Get Up, Get Down” and a hot fucking bass part from Guillame Doiron. When you play “À la vie, à la mort” and “Liste Noire” back-to-back, you’re simply knocked out by this woman’s range of expressive talent.
And how can you not love a woman who titles a song, “Baise-moi” (“Fuck me”)? I don’t think I’ve ever heard a song that so perfectly expresses the feeling of a woman in heat. The barrage of base erotic tension in the line, “Baise-moi, frôle-moi, love-moi, touche-moi” is delivered with a marvelous combination of desire and vulnerability. I have to comment on her choice of words here; the verb “frôler” means to “brush lightly against the skin,” like in foreplay when your partner simply allows his or her hand to make brief, faint contact with the nipple without allowing the hand to linger and turn into a hard tit squeeze. People! You don’t have to be porn star animals when doing the deed! Sometimes subtle can be as powerful as the deepest fuck! Frôler!
“Si tu m’entends” (“If you (can) hear me”) follows, a somber ballad where the narrator describes a life of loneliness and boredom as she waits in suspended animation for her lover to make that love a reality. It’s another beautiful number backed by an exquisite arrangement of strings, piano and fascinating drum touches from Martin Lavallée.
This brings us to the only track sung entirely in English, “Bad Bad Girl,” a solid rocker with great drumming, powerful guitar from Jean-Sébastian Chóuinard and another killer vocal from Anik. This isn’t the fake naughty-girl crap we get from Madonna; this is about being “a bad, bad girl in your nice, nice world,” an expression of refusal to accept the limits of acceptable behavior imposed on women by society. This is the song with the greatest use of electronic instruments on the entire album, and though I’ve often found that the synth is often used to disguise a weak song, that isn’t the case here. This song kicks fucking ass!
The rock keeps coming with “Tu es mon enfer” (“You’re my hell”), which takes more of a classic approach with distorted guitar and steady drumming. The harmonies here give the song a power pop feel, but the content of the song (a desire to escape from moments of near-dementia) makes it anything but a pleasant walk on a sunny day.
By now, you may have guessed that Anik Jean is unafraid to deal with difficult subjects. Nowhere is this demonstrated with more poignancy than in the title track, “Schizophrène,” which deals with the death of her brother, who suffered from schizophrenia.
A few years ago I went to the Secession in Vienna, primarily to see Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze. At that time the museum featured an exhibition by a painter afflicted with schizophrenia who had chosen to stop taking his meds and record his descent into insanity on canvas. The series of paintings were the most disturbing works of art I have ever seen, and the bizarre images he painted as he plunged towards his inevitable death from suicide still echo in my mind. The exhibit gave me an enhanced understanding of the plight of many of the homeless who infiltrated my relatively comfortable childhood in San Francisco, many of whom suffer from schizophrenia and similar psychological conditions.
But I’ve never had a family member develop schizophrenia. Or die as the result of schizophrenia.
Anik Jean did. The task of transforming such an intense personal experience into coherent art would be a major challenge for anyone. The overwhelming emotions of grief, guilt and helplessness could have easily turned this song into a confused muddle of sentimentality that would have contaminated the very thing she needed to express. Fortunately for us, Anik Jean is not Sinèad O’Connor; she possesses the ability to achieve the “negative capability” that Ms. O’Connor’s music often lacks. The liner notes tell us that she enlisted some help with these lyrics from Lynda LeMay, which was both a smart choice and a demonstration of her commitment to get the song right. The story unfolds simply, vividly and honestly, beginning with imagery that has to resonate with any person who has quickened the pace or changed direction when a babbling homeless person comes into view:
J’ai pas besoin d’aller bien loin
Pour t’visiter un peu en retard
J’ai qu’à croiser un pauv’ gamin
Un peu troublé, un peu à part
Aussitot qu’un weirdo marmonne
Coin Ontario et Parthenais
Moi je lui donne toute ma monnaie
Pour que tu m’pardonnes.
I don’t need to go too far
To visit you . . . a little late
I only have to come across a poor kid
A bit confused, slightly apart
As soon as a weirdo mutters
On the corner of Ontario and Parthenais
I give him all my money
So that you may forgive me.
The song then describes in clear, unflinching language the difficulties of trying to relate to someone whom you’ve known for a lifetime but now exists in a different world, and the guilt, shame, frustration and rage engendered by that profound disconnection. By humanizing the experience, Anik Jean and Lynda LeMay place schizophrenia inside the realm of our experience instead of allowing it to lurk outside like the unwanted guest. Sung above a background of simple piano, Wurlitzer and slide guitar, Anik’s vocal is noticeably understated; the tone is of a woman recovering after a long cry. The quick pace of the lyrics give the song a feeling of a confession held inside for too long, when suddenly the words tumble out of our mouths before they can be edited. “Schizophrène” is a poetic and storytelling masterpiece, a song of beauty about something ugly that we would like to ignore. It is a superb example of artistic and personal courage.
In the end, Schizophrène is an exceptional work of art, miraculously synthesizing different perspectives, characters and musical styles into a genuine gift for the listener. Anik Jean is a marvelously talented woman who assembled a strong supporting cast to record an album that rocks and moves while simultaneously stimulating our minds and moving our hearts. I would love to see her influence extend far beyond the borders of La Belle Province, for she deserves to be recognized for her special gifts.