Mylène Farmer is, by far, the most successful singer of all-time in France. Celine Dion hasn’t even come close to selling the number of albums Mylène has sold there. Even in Canada, where Mylène was born, she rivals Celine. She’s hugely popular in other countries, too, having completed sold out tours of Russia before her albums were even officially released there. The astounding thing about this is that Mylène is a very dark, mysterious and often morbid artist. She’s also quite provocative, having appeared nude in many of her early videos, such as “Libertine,” where she played a prostitute. Honestly, Madonna seems like a PG-13 artist compared to Mylène, who’s easily an NC-17 if not X. But, yes, if I had to compare Mylène to any western artist it would have to be Madonna, as she’s the closest any western artist has come to being as controversial and successful as Mylène.
A few years ago Mylène released an album called Bleu Noir, which she wrote with RedOne and Moby, who also produced the tracks. This disappointed many of her fans, who missed her longtime collaborator Laurent Boutonnat. You see, throughout Mylène’s career, Laurent has written the music for Mylène’s songs while Mylène has written the lyrics. Together, they’ve concocted a sound that no other artist has ever successfully mimicked. Well, aside from a few artists who’ve collaborated with Mylène and/or Laurent, such as Nathalie Cardone and Alizée. While I liked Bleu Noir, I can honestly say that it was my least favorite of Mylène’s albums. It was just so bizarre to hear her vocals over other people’s beats. I’ve loved most of the remixes Mylène has released throughout her career, so it wasn’t the first time I heard her vocals over other’s music, but you expect that and accept that when it comes to remixes. Hearing other people’s beats on the actual album versions of her songs was difficult for most fans to wrap their heads around. Many commented that the album felt like a collection of remixes, since it sounded so different from her usual albums. Suffice to say that her fans rejoiced when it was announced that Laurent was coming back for Mylène’s latest album, Monkey Me, which was released in late 2012. That said, many — myself included — worried that Mylène and Laurent would just be going through the motions on Monkey Me, resulting in a weak, formulaic record. Fortunately, it proved to be anything but.
From the moment “Elle a dit” begins the album with Mylène singing over dark synth, it’s immediately obvious that we’re in for quite the voyage. When the throbbing beats, the hypnotic bass and the piercing piano join the mix, what we have is the oh-so-distinct sound of Laurent’s music, which sounds familiar but not redundant. As for Mylène’s voice, the often-noted angelic quality is there, but so is the darkness. As anyone can tell you, Mylène has always been slightly more devil than angel. Lyrically, “Elle a dit” is a poetic tale about a gay woman feeling overwhelmed by her sexuality. The song refers to laws and God and being misunderstood. The music is upbeat but the lyrics are far from it, being somewhat depressing and more than a little haunting.
The first single, “À l’ombre,” is a club-ready, up-tempo dance pop number. And yet it’s not particularly upbeat. The title means “in the shadows,” and that’s a good way to describe the lyrics overall. Here’s a translation of some lyrics from the first verse: “An omen, of autumn, here, fear engages, on my face, doubt shivers, am I made for dreams?” Once again, her words are eerie, yet they’re also seductive. You would be right to declare her the most poetic French songwriter since the late Serge Gainsbourg. And while her voice and music couldn’t be further removed, she’s arguably the most unforgettable French chanteuse since the beloved, late Edith Piaf.
Another highlight is the title track, “Monkey Me,” where she sings about being trapped in the skin of another, conflicted, perhaps even possessed. A translation of the chorus goes, “it’s another me, it’s monkey me, the animal.” Later she sings that she loses hearing, that she’s thinking elsewhere. More than just dark or poetic, it’s cryptic, a word often used to describe Mylène’s work. Musically, much of the song consists of drums and electric guitar, a sound Mylène has generally stayed away from since the song “Dessine-moi un mouton” from 1999’s brilliant Innamoramento album. To that end, “Dessine-moi un mouton” was the only song on Innamoramento to feature electric guitars prominently. That was the sound that dominated her previous album, Anamorphosée, which was the closest she’s ever come to doing a rock album, something that frustrated many of her fans, who longed for her traditional synthy pop sound, though it was and remains my favorite of her albums.
The only blemish on Monkey Me comes in the form of the English-language song “Love Dance.” I’m not sure if it’s her accent, or simply because I’m so accustomed to hearing her sing in French, but it never quite feels right, to me, when Mylène sings in English, something she rarely does. The trouble with “Love Dance” isn’t so much that she’s singing in English so much as how boring and unpoetic the lyrics are. “If you say so, won’t let you go,” she sings. It’s nothing any third rate pop star couldn’t write. “Happy birthday to you,” she later sings. Talk about cheesy. I especially dread the idea of people hearing this song and assuming that her French lyrics are so uninventive and lame, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Fortunately, the music of the song is just as infectious as any other track on the album, at least making it tolerable. It also scores points for sounding like a cross between Laurent’s typical style and the recent work of Calvin Harris, so perhaps it just might have the potential to be an international hit. Although I’m hoping she re-records the vocals in French if they’re going to release it as a single.