Flower power

The return of Jeanne Mas
By MICHAEL FREEDBERG  |  January 14, 2008

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CRISIS RESOLVED: After a long, profound fall, Jeanne Mas is back.

As I write this, I’m listening to the newest Jeanne Mas CD, The Missing Flowers (eDina). Twenty-two years ago, her debut CD, Jeanne Mas (EMI), took the world of variété française by storm. Mas’s voice — petite and soprano, fluttery, flamboyant — simply exploded out of the speaker, tender and sexy, irresistible. Very quickly she became the most intensely loved of that era’s variété française stars. And almost as quickly, she lost the heights. By 1994 she was forgotten. Little wonder that, in this new CD’s title song, Mas ponders plaintively, behind the flowers that are missing, the lovers who too are missing.

The follow-ups to Mas’s debut, Femmes d’aujourd’hui and Les crises de l’âme (both EMI), repeated almost exactly the sound, tempo, and subject matter of her debut. The little she added — political and social commentary — she bungled. She was too feminist for a decade moving away from feminism, and Afrocentric as well. Her inability to sustain the magic of her debut was particularly damaging because in 1986 there appeared Cendres de lune, Mylene Farmer’s debut CD, whose odd mélange of libertine sex and pensive sadness made Mas’s affirmative sexuality sound naive, surface, and glam where Farmer was gloom.

And just as quickly came new, intense, and difficult CDs by two who had been major variété stars before Mas ever appeared: France Gall (Babacar) and Jane Birkin (a live Je suis venue te dire que je m’en vais). After Gall’s soulful romanticism and Birkin’s wistful, mordant storytelling — both of them backed by blues-rock bands as serious as anything available at the time — and Farmer’s CD after CD of ever more piquant, risqué, profound speculations on Edith Piaf’s “Je ne regrette rien” theme, what room was there for Mas’s wrong turns?

Mas’s fall was a profound one. Whereas Gall, Farmer, and Birkin have all maintained, even improved on, their ’80s popularity, Mas by the mid ’90s was out of music entirely. Yet some fans remained. And eventually there was music for them. Discarding, at last, the Italian arrangers and producers who had made her magnificent debut and its three follow-ups, Mas became, on 1996’s Jeanne Mas & les Égoïstes (Arcade), a very different sort of rockeuse from before. Fronting an old-school band of guitars and bass only — no orchestration, no atmospherics — she sang harshly, from the back of her throat. In “Si fou, si west,” there was bitter humor, as she shared plenty of dirt about her years adrift.

Very few Mas fans heard Les Égoïstes, and not many more bought her 2003 CD Les amants de Castille (XIII Bis) — 11 songs based on the love affair from El Cid, between the Cid and Chimène. The CD’s last song, “Ma plus belle histoire,” was Mas’s own story, the most relaxed, rapturous ballad she’d recorded. Until The Missing Flowers.

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