LABEL: CAPITOL MUSIC FRANCE
ALBUM IN A SENTENCE: A confident, fresh survey of how the chanson tradition sounds in 2021.
I was trying to prove a point to a friend in the pub about something totally different. My point was roughly that in a culture glut, confidence and freshness, embracing what you believe in, goes further than pursuing what is fashionable. I wish I had Barbara Pravi’s first full album On n’enferme pas les oiseaux as evidence. Is Barbara Pravi an innovative, avant-garde artist who is stretching the boundaries of what is possible in the French folk tradition? Not really, but her first full collection authoritatively delivers exactly what you would expect from a chanson album in 2021. Feisty, sweeping, chic and self-possessed, On n’enferme pas les oiseaux is carrying a torch the torch song. It’s really good at delivering the good stuff.
Album opener ‘Voila’ is a total showstopper. France’s most successful Eurovision entry for 30 years, the song does what it is meant to do, announce Pravi’s songwriting and vocal talent with a Piaf-ian flourish. Pravi insists from the first line ‘Écoutez-moi’, ‘Regardez-moi’, and as the song dives and pivots into a swirling waltz, it captures your full attention.
If no other song on the album hits as hard as ‘Voila’, there is plenty that charms and challenges. Pravi can deliver intense poetic, Brel-like phrases on ‘La Vague’ and ‘La Ritournelle’ but ‘Je l’aime, Je l’aime, Je l’aime’ skips its way into a full blown La La Land Paris fantasia. ‘La Femme’ is a cultural exchange student to My Brightest Diamond’s ‘This is my Hand’. Meanwhile, ‘Saute’ brings the party without managing to be modern in any way. Modernness, the kind of sleekness Christine & The Queens might extract from a song like this, isn’t really that important. The values that matter on On n’enferme pas les oiseaux are sincerity, reality and congruence. Listening to this album, there is a definite sense that you are getting to know an artist who carries an aroma of confidence and class.
Somewhere in the centre of this album is a conversation about what it means to be French, what it means to keep breathing life into traditions and culture that otherwise ossify and calcify. Pravi’s personal history, with family roots in Serbia and Iran, is one further reminder of the foolishness of equating some notion of ‘purity’ of heritage with authenticity. Her position in French culture, rooted in chanson and also endorsed by the European public and featured on the front cover of Paris Match, is a long way away from the sub-culture of English folk. Stop for a moment and it’s easy to feel a little bit envious of a country that has space to confidently recognise and articulate itself without getting locked up inside a cage of petty, totems of imperial nostalgia.