It’s funny — I can review music in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Italian, Greek, etc, but when it comes to French I always struggle. The problem is that I know some French, but I’m far from being fluent, so I understand just enough of the lyrics to get a general idea of what a song is about, or so I might think, as I often draw the wrong conclusions. So, it would almost be better if I didn’t know any French, less I take things the wrong way. That said, I am glad that I understand some French because the songs on Zazie’s new album Cyclo are more affecting if you do. Cyclo is a particularly difficult album for me to review, however, because Zazie is one of France’s most poetic songwriters of all-time. In fact, her lyrics are so distinguished that they’ve led to the coining of the French word zazisme or “Zazie-ism.”
I’ve been a fan of Zazie since her 2004 album Rodéo, which she co-produced with Jean-Pierre Pilot and Philippe Paradis. It was an album I immediately fell in love with the first time I listened to it. In fact, it was about halfway through the first track, “La Dolce Vita,” that I knew I was under her spell, that I’d be a fan of hers for the rest of my life. It was such an intoxicating track, exquisitely produced electro-pop, but very artsy electro-pop. Very poetic as well. I was swept away. And I was awe-stricken by one of the album’s other tracks, too, a tearful ballad called “Lola Majeure.” It’s easily one of the most haunting songs I’ve ever heard and I’ve included it on many of my playlists. (It’s perfect for chilling out or for when you’re drifting off to sleep. And yet it’s brilliant and lush enough that it fully commands your attention even if you listen to it while cleaning your house or feeding your cat.) No matter how many times I’ve heard it, I always feel something emotionally. And I think that would be the case even if I didn’t understand a word of French. The voice can simply act as an instrument, creating sound, putting forth emotion, just as a violin or piano can. Understanding the language the singer is singing in can help you connect to it, but it’s still possible to make that connection even if you don’t understand a word of it. Especially when you have a vocalist as emotive as Zazie. Trust me, I’ve given Rodéo to a lot of people over the years and nobody has ever had anything even remotely negative to say about it.
After the success of Rodéo, Zazie again collaborated with Jean-Pierre Pilot and Philippe Paradis on her follow-up album Totem. Like Rodéo, it went platinum. In fact, according to Wiki, it sold even better. But then came Za7ie, a most unusual project. If I understand correctly, Zazie recorded seven songs in seven days during seven weeks for a total of 49 songs. 7 E.P.s were released of these songs, one basically representing each week. But the best songs from them were released on the album Za7ie. Personally, I thought it was a fantastic album, but apparently the record-buying public didn’t. Where her previous albums sold over 300,000 copies, Za7ie only sold 120,000. Still enough to be considered a platinum record in France, but, obviously, it had to have affected her to only have sold a third of what she usually sold.
When it came time to make her new album, Cyclo, Zazie opted to collaborate with producer Olivier Coursier of AaRON, whom she collaborated with on one of Za7ie’s tracks, “La place du vide.” (The album was then mixed by Tony Hoffer.) This probably troubled fans who wanted her to produce another Rodéo or Totem, but now that Cyclo has been released there don’t seem to be many complaints. On the contrary, many of the user reviews on Amazon France state that it’s her best album ever.
Much like when I first heard Rodéo, I knew I was going to love Cyclo before the first song, “Les contraires,” was even over. I certainly recognized some differences immediately though. For one thing, the song — the title’s English translation is “Opposites” — was rather minimalist in comparison to her usual lush productions. There was also an interesting contrast happening within the song as cold, piercing piano notes were paired against warm, inviting electro-beats. Was this song supposed to be uplifting or haunting? The more I listened to it, the more confused I was. Until I finally managed to comprehend some of the lyrics. For example: “J’ai raison, oui j’ai tort, Tout va bien, je pleure encore.” That basically means “I’m right, I’m wrong, all goes well, I cry again.” Suddenly it was obvious why the song was produced the way it was — it was meant to sound as conflicted as the lyrics are.
The more I listened to Cyclo and read the lyrics online, the more obvious it became that this was Zazie’s most introspective album to date. Which isn’t to say that her songs weren’t personal before. I think they were very personal. But Cyclo peels back another layer, digging even deeper into her soul. At least if we’re to believe that she’s singing about herself in most of these songs.
One of my favorite tracks is “Je ne sais pas,” which just about everyone in the world knows to mean “I don’t know.” And that is, in fact, the expression that Zazie is making when she sings these lyrics. But this is not a simple song. Not by a longshot. From what I understand, it seems to be a song about a relationship that might be ending. She’s reflecting on how awful things have been, how depressed she’s been feeling, and wondering what it will be like if and when he comes back. The song starts off like a subtle ballad, but it grows and grows in intensity as it goes on. Zazie can sing so low she’s practically whispering, but she can also scream her head off. She might have a slightly dry, slightly raspy voice, and she might not have the greatest range, but she makes you feel her pain in this song. By the end she’s practically screeching and you can feel the stress and uncertainty she’s facing even if you don’t understand much of the lyrics.
As for the rest of the album, well, it’s melancholic much of the time, but it’s also very beautiful. It kind of reminds me of Edith Piaf’s music. She could sing the most heart-breaking song in the world, but there was always something beautiful about her songs. You could tell that she meant those words, that her pain was real. Even if she didn’t write the song she was singing, she could dig deep into her heart and soul and find the inspiration to convey the emotion the song merited. Sometimes her songs could reduce you to tears because the lyrics were so sad, but she could also move you to tears even if you didn’t understand a word of French because she sounded as though she was actually fighting back tears herself as she sang the song. She didn’t just sing the songs — she felt them. It’s the same with Zazie, especially on this album. These aren’t just songs, nor poetry — they’re confessionals from deep inside of her. Sometimes, listening to Cyclo, it’s almost too much to bare. It can be overwhelming. But I love it for that reason, among others. I love that it makes me feel something and not just the urge to dance like so many bubble gum pop songs. This is the furthest thing from bubble gum pop that there is while still, on some level, being pop. To that end, yes, some of these songs are very catchy, so much so that you can enjoy them without understanding them, but if you understand even a fraction of the lyrics they’ll infect you that much more.