Poetic license

Carla Bruni’s No Promises
By CHARLES TAYLOR  |  February 20, 2007

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HUSH HUSH: No Promises tries to return poetry to the realm of the colloquial.
For generations, moony adolescents have stoked their feelings of being sensitive and misunderstood by moping around reading poetry. In the last 50 or so years, some have picked up acoustic guitars and burdened an uneager world with their own poetry. (Worse still, some of them have gotten recording contracts.) On No Promises (Naïve import), Italian model turned singer Carla Bruni leaves the lyrics to the real poets, writing musical backing for poems by Auden, Yeats, Emily Dickinson, Walter de la Mare, Christina Rossetti, and Dorothy Parker. If ever an album ran the risk of pretension, this is it. But No Promises turns out to be a casual, offhand charmer, and Bruni seems like a performer of terrific taste, pitch, and restraint.

Not for her to wander lonely as a cloud through selections designed to show off a swoony poetic sensibility. She essays Dorothy Parker’s “Ballade at Thirty-Five” in a way that does full justice to the parody of self-pity that Parker intended by that unnecessary “e,” giving “Decked in garments of sable hue/Daubed in ashes of myriad Lents/Wearing shower bouquets of rue/Walk I ever in penitence” their irony. The humor of these lines is in their self-consciousness. Parker is taking the piss out of “poetic” language, and Bruni sets up this reverie of lamented loves so that the final line, “I loved them until they loved me” comes as a deflating zinger.

Bruni’s vocals tend toward the hushed, though there’s nothing coy or affected about her delivery. Throughout No Promises (the title comes from Christina Rossetti’s “Promises like Pie-Crust”) her breathy, thick English conveys the best kind of reserve. She holds herself back from the lyrics, not because she disdains emotion but because she trusts the poems to speak for themselves. She doesn’t push the longing in Emily Dickinson’s “If you were coming in the fall” or sentimentalize the compassion and frank self-appraisal of Yeats’s “Before the World Was Made.” The respect with which she approaches these poems is the opposite of paralyzing reverence — she’s trying to return poetry to the realm of the colloquial. Her tossed-off phrasing, especially the endearing way her voice tends to fade when reaching for a higher note, resists declamation. And the music she’s written, especially as played by the album’s unsung hero, guitarist Louis Bertignac, resists stateliness. Yeats’s “Those Dancing Days Are Gone” is a folkish shuffle. Dickinson’s “I felt my life with both my hands” is typical in having a melody so simple, the musicians might have stumbled on it while sitting around talking and strumming.

No Promises is eccentric enough to become a beloved oddball treasure. It’s also one of those mellow records with a cool cachet that runs the risk of being played incessantly in cafés and boutiques — something that nearly happened to Bruni’s first album. If it interests you, get it now. Its modest pleasures shouldn’t be ruined by overexposure.

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