As tribute records go, La Bande à Renaud, is not bad, but it is a little sad. There is a valedictory air to these restrained, polite versions of songs by one of the dominant figures of French popular music since the 1970s, Renaud Séchan – which is ironic since Renaud himself was neither.
In scores of inventive, funny and angry songs Renaud sang for a generation, or at least that part of it that was rebellious and tender-hearted. He drafted a damning indictment of France in Hexagone and laughed at Margaret Thatcher in Miss Maggie. He satirised petit-bourgeois hypocrisy in Mon Beauf and the bohemian middle class in Les Bobos. But it is the songs of family life (En Cloque, about his pregnant wife, or Il pleut, one of many love songs to his daughter) that his true ‘coeur d’artichaut’ appears. His portraits of a lonely middle-aged woman living in the Paris suburbs (Banlieue Rouge), or of the child of North African immigrants (Deuxième Génération) are clear-eyed and moving, and, like the best of his work, uniquely his.
Renaud has not released a record of new songs for eight years; he says inspiration has deserted him, and he feels trapped in nostalgia. One article about La Bande à Renaud (on which he does not appear) suggests that the album is an effort to fulfil an outstanding contract with EMI and asks “Renaud, un chanteur fini?”.
Renaud may not write any new songs, but he is not finished. The France that inspired him is gone, along with military service, the guillotine, Mobylettes, les santiags and cafés with pinball machines; even the rich argot from which he crafted his texts, has been succeeded by new languages such as verlan. But that country lives in an inspired body of songs that is as eloquent a portrait of its time as that of Jacques Brel, Georges Brassens or Edith Piaf. Renaud’s world, like Maigret’s, was always a recreation of reality: as that fades into history, its simulacrum remains, offering new listeners imaginative access to a life otherwise beyond reach.
With La Bande à Renaud Renaud Séchan takes his place, if not amongst les immortels, then at least in the canon of French chanson. Unimportant in itself, like those pointless ceremonies inducting ageing musicians into ‘Halls of Fame’, it still feels like a moving salute to a great artist by his (slightly) younger peers. Happily, it is not the only such acknowledgement to appear now. In the belief that songs are made to be whistled in the shower, sung in the street, shouted in the metro, and reinterpreted on the web, 20 young artists have done just that, sharing the results freely online. Renaud, optimist and anarchist, must be proud.