Saturday, January 16, 2010
"Jolie Louise" by Daniel Lanois (1989)
Daniel Lanois is an interesting figure. Better known as a producer than as a musician, he’s the kind of producer who seems to add precious little of his own personality to his projects. No two Daniel Lanois productions sound alike, so there’s no sense that he’s made much of a contribution beyond getting it down on tape. Mind you, that’s not a criticism.
Doesn’t matter, anyway. The point here is that he also has a little sideline as a musician and singer – I doubt he’s ever earned much money from it. I don’t know much of what he’s done, but I do know this song, which is something that I rarely find in a song that I like, namely ‘charming’.
But it is. It’s a totally guileless, intentionally small song, evocative of several different francophone North American genres, a mid-tempo shuffle with a melody that could be five hundred years old as much as it could have been created last week.
Not being a traditionally ‘good’ singer helps Lanois here, as his rudimentary vocal chops carry a song about an ‘everyman’, a working class loser with a failed marriage and a drinking problem. Sung in a franglais so well-written that you barely notice he’s slipping between languages, Lanois’s vocal performance carries the song, making the Jean-Guy of the lyrics an entirely believable character.
This song manages in some way to touch on a very male kind of feeling, I think. The lyrics are sparse, so it’s difficult to figure them out for sure. Either he’s hard-working guy who is driven to drink by being laid off, or his drinking leads to him being fired. Either way, he enters into a downward spiral, drinking to hide his ‘shame’ from his wife and kids. He ends up hitting his wife, so he’s clearly no hero, but as she runs away with the kids, he’s left to mourn what was lost. You can’t exactly love the guy, but at least on some level you can see the guy as a flawed character trying to get through the meaninglessness that we call life.
Did I really call this song about alcoholism and spousal abuse ‘charming’? Well, on some level it is. You walk away from the song strangely uplifted, and perhaps that’s where that unmemorable folk-shuffle deceives. Just like the ancient folk ditties that tell of horrors yet are sung genially in bars, this song somehow manages to couch its rather distressing lyrics in a musical setting that encourages more than the lyrics discourage.
Hell, perhaps that paradox is the point: the out-of-left-field sucker-punch that is this song, movingly sung by a non-singer, genially performed by a non-performer, and undeniably great even though none of its constituent parts are all that special.