Marietta’s first album under his own name, Basement Dreams are the Bedroom Cream, was a lo-fi affair: catchy, energetic garage rock songs more or less put straight to tape in the artist’s room. But for La Passagère, Marietta said he “wanted a real production”.
When he was introduced to the work of Chris Cohen – ex-member of Deerhoof, multi-instrumentalist (like Marietta), and talented producer of his own music as well as Weyes Blood’s album Front Row Seat to Earth – he decided to get in touch. La Passagère benefits from a more spacious sound and a broader choice of instruments, with saxophones, wurlitzer and synths. The result is a totally different beast from Basement Dreams: richly and meticulously put together, without losing any of the first album’s energy and charm.
Tracks like “Livide est la Nuit” and first single “Nos Ventres Nus” are perfectly crafted pop songs, though odd, angular ones – unsurprising from someone who cites Syd Barrett and Cate Le Bon among his influences. Elsewhere, like on “L’Insecte dans ma Bouche”, the vocals are almost drowned out in a roar of percussion and overdriven guitars that have something of the repetitive simplicity of Suicide; and on the eponymous penultimate track Marietta conjures up hints of Explosions In The Sky with a slow-building crescendo. But the record doesn’t sound at all fragmented or – dreaded word – eclectic. It is an impressively cohesive work.
While kids on the continent are used to singing along to tracks in a language they might not understand, we rarely make the same effort. We’re poorer for it. There are good reasons, commercial and otherwise, for French groups to sing in English (for one, as Marietta says himself, English has been the universal language of rock and pop since 1950) but there is fertile ground here for those who don’t. Marietta says his own decision to return to French was an unconscious one. After writing a long piece that was never destined to be a song but that, trimmed and changed, would become the dark, moody “La Grande Ville Malade”, he found that he "had opened a door which stayed open".
Lyrically, Marietta’s world has been familiar rock territory since Lou Reed: urban, sexy, and nocturnal, punctuated with occasional violence. Alongside Reed, Marietta names Dylan and Mark Berman of the Silver Jews among the influences on his writing, but his own approach is more fragmentary and impressionistic, rarely straightforward story telling. Songs like “La Grande Ville Malade” and “L’Insecte Dans Ma Bouche” are delirious and nightmarish; elsewhere the lyrics are sensual and languid. In Marietta’s opinion it is easier to say things simply in English, while French demands a more careful choice of words, as well as posing problems rhythmically, which might account for some of this obliqueness. In any case the result is heady and effective.
His stated aim is to make an album that is recognisably a Guillaume Marietta album: “When you listen to Bob Dylan or Lou Reed or Neil Young, you listen to ‘a Bob Dylan record', ‘a Lou Reed record', or a ‘Neil Young record'—not a ‘folk album’ or a ‘rock album.’ That's what I aspire to.” La Passagère is just that: a Marietta album.