Once the enfant terrible of French chanson, Benjamin Biolay is now in his mid-forties and a fashion icon who has spent a decade living -- most of the time -- in the funky Argentinian artist's neighborhood that 2016's wonderful Palermo Hollywood was titled after. Volver (Spanish for "come back") is, appropriately, a formal sequel. It is marked by an even more ambitious array of styles -- from cumbia and hip-hop to rock, funk, nouveau (or, perhaps post-modern) chanson and more, but this assemblage is less carefully constructed, and thank goodness, though it will likely be more controversial for French listeners.
Biolay's sonic restlessness is tempered only by his punk rock attitude. He commences the set with a cinematic ballad in the title track, lamenting his bitter, aging gigolo's status: "I want to do just as the rich do/Cursing those at the bottom...Life does not like it when/We look her right in her eyes...." He counters it with the irony in "Encore Encore!" -- a campy, Blondie -esque, love-stricken rock & roll duet with his ex-wife Chiara Mastroianni. She is not the only guest on this 15-song set, either. Rapper Sofia Wilhelmi reprises her role from Palermo Hollywood on the steamy tropical cumbia "Ça Ole Bas," while the grand dame of French cinema, Catherine Deneuve, appears on the breezy disco of "Happy Hour" that denigrates France for living on the reputation of its excesses rather than on the excesses themselves. Speaking of disco, Biolay gets backing from the ever funky Illya Kuryaki & the Valderramas on "Roma (Amor)" that nods at Federico Fellini's 8½ had it been scored by Cerrone. Cumbia meets cafe rap on the half-spoken/half-sung "Pardonnez-Mo" featuring Miss Bolivia.
Despite the many guest spots, though, Biolay manages just fine on his own. Check the sweet, exotic flavor of Cuban son, reggae, chanson, and funk in "Mala Siempre" -- its production aesthetic includes layered organs, strings, Auto-Tuned backing vocals, and loops. Likewise the bumping Morricone-esque guitars, disco bassline, rumbling low-end drums, and Biolay's cool, raspy singing make "L'alcool, L'absence" one of the album's many delights -- the honking baritone sax solo is a nice touch to boot. On the ballad "Arrivederci," Biolay sounds like Iggy Pop from Preliminaires -- or is the other way around? On "La Memorie," orchestral strings in waltz time meet a nylon-string guitar as Biolay tortures himself with a tender recollection: "...the few evenings when memory recreates your little black dress and your mole...." The musical narratives on Volver reflect in humorous -- and, of course, gauche -- detail that Biolay's protagonists remain unrepentant and will take any chance at all to repeat their long history of decadent behavior. (Check the dissolute soul-boy sleaze in "Hypertranquille.") They see that the Faustian bargain with the devil is about to come due, but there remains (a little) more playtime. Volver is a wonderful sequel to Palermo Hollywood to be sure, but it's so much more: it stands on its own as more evidence of Biolay's mature (and trademark) post-everything pop aesthetic.