Jacques Brel – Belgian singer/songwriter

Jacques Brel was a Belgian singer-songwriter from the 1950s-1970s. He is a classic example of the chanson genre, which tends to have more complex lyrics and a rhythmic structure more attuned to French than the more American/British influenced pop music.

Brel is brilliant both musically and lyrically. The lyrics are complex with beautiful French, and the songs usually have a bit of a bite or “twist” to them. They often have a bit of an earthy tone or topic, and there’s a fair stream of satire that runs through them. They are often quite funny, and often bitter-sweet.

Brel’s performances are also quite theatrical–it’s perhaps no surprise that he ended up in movies for the second half of his career.

My dad used to listen to him at home, and upon learning French I fell in love with him too.  The music always reminds of France (though Brel is Belgian; calling a Belgian French is like calling a Canadian an American!)

From time to time, I’ll do a bit of a translation. These are what I think of as “first order” translation–they give you the sense of the song, without trying to emulate its deeper poetry, rhythmic structure, or rhyme scheme. Doing that is much more difficult, partly because of how perfectly what he does in French works. Duplicating it is difficult, though I might try that too if I get really brave.

Thanks to YouTube, you can see some live performances. Even if you don’t speak French, you may enjoy him–very much of a different era, but timeless too. If you’re ever sick of recycled stuff on the radio, this can set your soul at ease.