St Germain is the stage name of the Frenchman Ludovic Navarre - beyond that, there isn’t a great deal we know for certain about him.
Both of his previous records were released prior to the era of internet ubiquity that he’ll drop this new one into - Boulevard in 1995, and Tourist in 2000 - and, accordingly, there isn’t much in the way of information when it comes to exactly what it is he’s been up to these past fifteen years. Perhaps he’s been putting his feet up - Tourist went multi-platinum and sold well over two million copies.
That record seemed like a strange candidate for crossover success, too; deep house and downtempo soundscapes were flecked with multi-layered samples and nods to acid jazz, blues and funk - an obviously cerebral approach that certainly doesn’t, on the face of it, cater to any kind of commercial considerations. Taking into account, too, that Tourist represented a real step forwards from Boulevard - at once experimental and a work of intense focus - it might have taken Navarre until now to figure out exactly how to set about the task of coming up with something fresh again.
He’s certainly managed it with St Germain; the same intelligence of construction and fine brushstrokes in the execution are evident throughout, but otherwise, this is a radically different record from anything he’s made before. He’s in thrall, for the most part, to African music, instrumentally a world away from the so-called ‘French Touch’ sound that he helped carve out with Tourist. At its core, this is still an album built around deep house - there’s that same kind of shuffling tempo, consistency of rhythm and reliance on repetitive, gradually hypnotic grooves - but on every other layer, Navarre is exploring new territory.
“Real Blues”, which opens the album, sets drums plucked from afrobeat alongside a Lightnin’ Hopkins sample and - in signature style - a slowly rolling introduction of synth. He takes this same, measured approach on the likes of “Voila” - where the percussion eventually catches up with a half-sung, half-chanted vocal from Malian singers Nahawa Doumbia and Fanta Bagayogo - and “Family Tree”, on which a stirring turn from their countryman Adama Coulibaly serves as the only anchor on what is otherwise, far and away, the record’s jazziest cut.
Across Boulevard and Tourist, there was quite a bit of evidence for the blues being Navarre’s first musical love, and he toys with the genre on St Germain; on the one hand, you have direct references to it, in classic Western terms, with the inclusion of Hopkins’ sampled vocals as well as a straight homage to Mississippi’s R.L. Burnside with “How Dare You”, which interpolates another sample and nods to his inimitable take on the twelve-bar blues pattern. The other side of that, though, is that elsewhere on the album, the instrumentation is so diverse - there are players on this record from Brazil, Guadeloupe and Martinique, amongst others - that the beating heart of the tracks is going to need a long-term digestion of the album to really manifest itself. In places, it feels a touch too crowded, and doesn’t balance immediacy with depth quite as effectively as Tourist did.
St Germain is a project with a level of ambition that goes some way to explaining the length of Navarre’s studio layoff, so much so that you wonder how quickly he’ll turn out another record after this - given the legwork he must have put in, surely such an extensive exploration of world music can’t be concluded in just eight tracks. Not everything that he turns his hand to here comes off, but when it does, the results are characteristically spectacular, and do more than enough to preserve St Germain’s reputation as an electronic musician of rare complexity - one who’s made a trademark of pulling off convoluted ideas with crispness and flair.