Dominique A is a great musician which I love. I came to know him through Eli Rozen, who brought Dominique A’s word to Israel. For Eli, Dominique A is a musical hero, just like John Fahey, Glen Jones, Jack Rose or Wilco are for me. Somehow I managed to contact him and send him my album and Eli’s album. He sent me back an enthusiastic letter in which he praised our albums, wrote that he enjoys them a lot and that he listens to them on the road, in his current tour.
In 2006 I wrote a this article about his album, L’horizon, which is no less than a masterpiece, if not more then that. I’ve published it at the Hebrew music reviews site The Blind Janitor, and thought of giving it new life (and adding audio and video). I haven’t changed what I’ve written then – and this is the article. This is an album that you really should hear no later than today.
Part I – trying to understand the understandable (without meeting him in real life)
If I would have to categorize Dominique A as a color or a shade, I would have chosen dark blue, though he goes on stage wearing black, the elegant sophisticated shade black. He is the kind of people who read their newspaper with eye glasses at the tip of their nose, and speak with you as they glare at you over their eye glasses. He is bald, slim, tall, impressive and handsome, and he has a telecaster guitar. Yeah, you can tell he’s the new crash.
His dark blue holds inside old scenes of new movies, and guitar work of a single person which reaches a level of self orchestration. He sounds like as if Godspeed You! Black Emperor themselves play in his record (for example in L’horizon, the title song). No, his not playing post rock. This kind of a crescendo can only be found in concert halls in hard, cold, biting Europe, dyed in dark-dark blue, hues of dusk.
Part II – anyway, we need some background facts, aren’t we? (Simply doing what I have to do)
Dominique A was born in 1968 in France. He was the only child. His father was a literature teacher. He himself studied modern literature. He had a band, he broke it up. Published his first record in 150 copies in 1990, and received a warm welcome from local radio stations. He published a CD in a label of a friend, and then Virgin bought the label. Dominique A started to become famous. Today he is a very well-known creator in France, especially by elitist music fans, those who actually understood Benjamin Beaulieu and like JP Nataf. He is also famous for writing one song in Jane Birkin’s last album. L’horizon is his seventh album
Part III – opening the album, a door to the world
Only a piano and a guitar start this masterpiece, L’horizon, the song and the album. Dominique said that he wanted a simpler sound comparing to his previous albums, and the sound is indeed more simple in the opening of the first song. (In other songs he avoids to handle more complex arrangements than guitar-bass-drums, guitar-soft electronics-piano or any other combination.) After the simple opening slowly the plot thickens. Maybe it’s the ¾ rhythm and Dominique’s singing style, and maybe it’s the orchestra of electric guitars, composed a layer over layer, while he plays the main theme. Godspeed, I’ve already said it.
After seven minutes, you understand you haven’t understood a thing because you don’t speak French. Even if you speak French you don’t understand a thing.
It’s another kind of French, you see, it’s the kind that floats from French film directors to important contemporary authors, and over to authors of past times. Every sentence is somewhat unknown, hiding a complete world inside.
During listening, Dominique moves from the singer/songwriter niche (and, respectively, also changes a place on the CD shelf), to the niche of ‘creators you love and you don’t have a clue what they’re singing about’.
In order to write about this album, I tried automatic translation services, song after song, but still – I couldn’t understand a thing. Not only because automatic translations miss puns and double meanings, but also because even the average French speaker will probably not completely understand it. Dominique A is bald, tall, wearing black, and looking at the world over his reading eye glasses. Mysterious.
The opening piece, seven minutes which by any other musician might scare someone form listening to the rest of the album, is a domineering and demanding black hole. It takes hold of listeners, listeners with get numb from the mightiness of such a piece, a piece with verses that stimulate your ear, sometimes touch you affectionately, and sometimes kick you. The ending of this piece walks all over you. Welcome to a world of happiness, if only you would chose to look at it as such.
Part IV – ok, a great opening, and what about the rest of the album?
The rest of the album? I don’t know how to phrase it. Let’s just say that at least a year no album took hold of me like L’horizon. It has a kind of quality that we’re not used to. It’s true, the mysteries of undecipherable French can perform miracles in a song, but that’s not the reason. There is something in the simple melodies and the non-pathos yet frighteningly accurate production that captures you and leads to addiction. Even if you support the motive of ‘Feeling bad is So last year‘, even if you’ve finished your gloomy years before you’ve finished high school, or after your military service (just before you’ve started your other life), you find yourself drawn to Dominique’s clean melancholy, leading you in dark French allies, trashy and simple but also occupied by lonely nouveau riche of cocktail parties, who live and sleep alone without even a dog to warm up their feet (for the rest of the story, please listen to “Where do you go to my Lovely” by Peter Sarstedt).
If by any chance you got the impression that Dominique A is a submissive and whining creator, who cries a lot and never celebrates Christmas – you got the wrong impression.There are rhythmic songs, with drums that actually sound happy, such as “Dans Un Camion” (“In a truck”), or “Retour au Quarter Lointain”, or “La Pleureuse”
Retour Au Quarter Lointain
This Dominique, an amazing and inspiring musician, is a terrible liar. Even in the more rhythmic, happy songs, there is a gloomy layer bubbling from underneath and leaping into your head immediately after you finish listening to the song, thinking to yourself “Wait a minute, why do I feel so off-balance after such a happy song?” – well, it’s probably because he never tried to make you happy, he’s not Bozo the clown. He wants despair when it feels right to him. If you don’t like it – you are welcome to move on.
And you’re moving on, reaching the end of the album. One song before last. Time stops, muses exploding around you, your heart torn (and if I’ll erase the metaphors in the last sentence and would try to use honest, realistic, non-poetic words – I would still say “your heart torn”.)
Part V – Rue Des Marais (it’s a name of a street, nothing more)
With an acoustic guitar, a light strings arrangment – which does not take hold of the entire spectrum, Dominique A sounds like he is sitting on the membranes of your loudspeakers/head phones and reading you a story. Sometimes he’s dramatic; sometimes he is fragmented, whispering. He is a modern Chansonier. A real one, playing a game which turns out not to be a game at all, taking the poetic history of Jacques Brel and casting it over the new listener in 2006.
Do you know the wonderful film (if you don’t, look for it on Youtube) of Brel performing “Port of Amsterdam” and “Ne me quittes pas?” The camera focuses on his face, and you can see the wrinkles that are not shown yet, you can see the honesty and the story crossing time, crossing the camera lenses, the distance of continents, hitting you with a hot iron bar.
This is the sensation created by Dominique in this song. I will have to wait and listen to 3-4 more of his records before I could safely declare that according to my limited understanding in French chanson singers, Dominique A is the most important chanson singer since Brel.
All in all, I don’t understand what this guy is singing about. I tried, and then I gave up. You don’t have to understand jazz in order to know is Eric Dolphy is moving you or not, and you don’t have to know the difference between a sonata and a symphony in order to know if you think that Mozart is a genius.
Rue Des Marais
Part VI – something personal
I didn’t listen to a lot of new music during the year, it’s been so busy. I did manage to listen to a few intriguing things (Akron/Family, Califone), a few things that excited me just because they happened (Bert Jansch with a new and f-a-n-t-a-s-t-i-c album), I’ve crowned – for myself – the best band in the world today (My Morning Jacket, what a band!), and a few nice albums that sometimes passed by my ear and sometimes hopped on an old mattress inside my soul (the last Ron Sexmith, for example).
But the only album that shook me, that took me to a new place, that made me sit straight and ask “WTF??” was Dominique A’s L’horizon.
Eli Rozen, had totally fell in love with his music three years ago, and Dominique’s influence has made wonders to his music. It took much effort on his side until I really gave this music a chance. Language is crucial for me, since song writers want the listeners to get all they gave him, and when the music is in a foreign language, especially when the text is crucial, it’s really annoying not understanding a word. But then I’ve listened to Dominique’s seventh album, moving from musical shock (without knowing how to write one single word about it), to writing this long text. I guess that foreign language is not a problem when it comes to authentic, direct music.
At the beginning, I’ve followed the awkward translation Google gave me. At some point I’ve simply let it go. You don’t really HAVE to understand the words, it’s a bonus. You can absorb the song in other ways: presentation, playing, breathing, whispering. It’s all there. A New scene of an old movie. An actor in an alley, in a truck, bald, handsome, wearing black cloth, blue music, eye-glasses at the tip of a nose, reading Baudelaire on a street in Brussels. Passing through the camera, through language, can’t even see you, dancing in your soul.
Fucks you up.
Get it here (otherwise, on Amazon.com you’ll have to pay an absurd price of 42$)