no·blesse o·blige[noh-bles oh-bleezh; French naw-bles aw-bleezh
the moral obligation of those of high birth, powerful social position, etc., to act with
honor, kindliness, generosity, etc.
Origin:1830–40; < French: literally, nobility obliges
Noblesse Oblige is a duo consisting of French-Caribbean performer Valerie Renay and German producer Sebastian Lee Philipp.
While they’re new to many of us, Affair of the Heart is actually Noblesse Oblige’s fourth album, following Privilege Entails Responsibility, In Exile and Malady, the latter of which was strongly influenced by the occult as the duo immersed themselves in the writing of Aleister Crowley and artists such as Kenneth Anger and Donald Cammell.
For the making of Affair of the Heart, the duo locked themselves away at the studio haven Turmwerk, which was founded by Chris Corner, otherwise known as IAMX, who’s also famous for his work with Sneaker Pimps. It would seem Corner had some influence on the duo as one hears shades of IAMX echoing throughout many of the songs on Affair of the Heart. And when it came time to make a video for the song “Runaway,” they entrusted Corner to direct it. The result is one of the most fascinating and beautiful videos to come around in a long time.
The album begins with “Mata Hari,” a mesmerizing song with layers and layers of sound that incorporates elements of creepy trip hop, dark electro-pop and even down-tempo house music. For those who don’t know, Mata Hari was a Dutch exotic dancer and courtesan who was accused of being a spy and was executed by a firing squad in France following charges of espionage for Germany during World War 1. She was born in 1876 and died on October 15, 1917. Whether Noblesse Oblige’s song is about the actual Mata Hari or not, I couldn’t say, but their song is in first person. “I’m Mata Hari, I’m my own master, I control your mind, and bring disaster,” sings Valerie during the first verse, using the lower register of her voice, to the point that I actually thought it was Sebastian singing those parts until she corrected me. Her vocals sound much more feminine and rather haunting during the song’s chorus, which features exotic music that calls to mind belly dancing.
“I’ve got to runaway,” Sebastian sings over and over again during the single “Runaway.” The track might be repetitious, but it’s compelling from start to finish. Valerie sings the chorus with Sebastian and they sound like they’re dueling, each threatening to run away and leave the other. Their voices are full of anger and venom. Musically, the song splits the difference between Tears for Fears and Depeche Mode. One could also say that it sounds like old school Duran Duran as remixed by RAC.
One of the album’s most delicious tracks is the club-ready thumper “Burn,” which is like David Guetta on an awful lot of Vicodin, the beats resounding and persistent but not quite as up-tempo as Guetta’s. Likewise, the tone of “Burn” is much darker than his work, the hypnotic beats instructing one to feel bleak as much as they inspire one to dance. “Chasing Shadows” is equally moody, calling to mind such trip hop artists as Massive Attack and Natalie Walker.
The song “Vagabonde” is in French with vocals provided entirely by Valerie who is French-Caribbean. Her light but biting vocals and lyrics call to mind many songs by Mylène Farmer, the dark queen of French pop (see my review of Mylène’s latest album Monkey Me elsewhere on this site), particularly the songs “Avant que l’ombre” and “À force de…”
The album’s most intriguing song may very well be the duo’s cover of “Hotel California,” which they deliver trip hop style with mid-tempo, thudding beats, dark synths and short bursts of guitar and other instruments. Valerie basically speaks the lyrics of the verses, though I suppose one could say that she’s rapping them. In any case, she doesn’t sing them. She does, however, sing the beautiful chorus, which is the sole part of the song where the melody even comes close to matching the melody of The Eagles’ song. As if all of these changes weren’t sufficient, the duo stretches out the song to 8:30, making it something I’d have to call prog-trip hop, so they just might have created a new genre here. Although that’s never their intention. It’s obvious that genre distinctions mean absolutely nothing to Noblesse Oblige. They are true visionaries and write and produce their songs the way they want to without giving a damn about what genre critics might classify it as or whether or not it’s normal to mix certain genres together. If they want to put something in the proverbial blender then it gets put in there and blended with everything else until they’ve crafted the tasty beverage that they so desire. Make no mistake about it: Affair of the Heart is a pure artistic statement — or a collection of artistic statements — that never tries to sound like your typical top 40 pop music or even today’s mainstream house or trance music. They just make the songs the way they’re inspired to make them, something many of today’s artists should start doing more of instead of following cookie cutter genre rules and writing and rewriting the same song over and over again until every song on the radio sounds the same; but this is how the machine works. Noblesse Oblige don’t care about the machine. Just listen to Affair of the Heart even once and it’ll be clear that they’re trying to break it.