Jacques Brel

American Début

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Jacques Brel had still to visit the U.S. when his first American album (so aptly titled!) was released -- ironically, by the time he did make his debut, this particular set was long since deleted. Nevertheless, it made a strong impression at the time, not only serving notice to those who cared that a new talent was stirring on the European mainland, but also offering up the first attempts yet made to render Brel into English. It is essentially a repackaging of the recently released French album Jacques Brel 4, even retaining the cover art. However, two bonus tracks were added: the consummate majesty of "Quand On N'a Que L'Amour" and "Je Ne Sais Pas" (from his second and third LPs, respectively). The musical content, then, is beyond reproach. For the fan and collector, however, that is only part of this album's charm. American Debut sadly declines to credit whoever it was who translated the French album's lyrics into English. But for any non-French-speaking listener familiar only with Rod McKuen or Mort Shuman's versions of Brel's best-known songs, the more-or-less word-for-word translations here might lose the rhyme and scan of the original lyric, but still convey the sheer delightful mischief and poetic sensitivity which was Brel's stock-in-trade. How many old lovers, bemoaning the death of passion, can resist the reminder, "often the fire has revived in volcanoes that were thought too old"? How many angst-ridden adolescents, pondering the meaning and purpose of life, will not swoon at the thought, "death waits under my pillow for me to forget to wake up"? And, the bonniest of so many bon mots, how many of us do not recognize the insufferably self-promoting do-gooders who believe, "to make a good charity worker, knit everything a dirty goose gray color, so that on Sundays at High Mass you can recognize your own cases." Brel's ability to pinpoint the essence of humankind, in all its guises and disguises, was one of the talents which so endeared him to his French and Belgian audiences -- they heard his observations and wished that they, too, had the wit to put such thoughts into words. American Debut allows us to hold the same ambitions.

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