Reviewed by Johan Palme on 28th December, 2017
For two genres of music that have shared so much history, going back to the middle ages, the Christmas carol and the French chanson have diverged onto quite different paths in the forest of time. But wouldn’t it be grand if chanson could retain some of that old mystical magic? And if Christmas music got just a pinch of the réalisme that made chanson hard-hitting, to avoid becoming just sentimental mush?
While individual tracks have tried fusing the two genres to greater success, truth and magic intertwining, André Claveau’s 1958 effort may be the most credible attempt at a full-length chanson Christmas record. André Claveau, of course, was hardly the most artistically stringent of the chanteurs – he was always primarily an entertainer, slicker and smoother, whose happy continued career on the Vichy side of occupied France saw many of chanson’s greatest eye him with suspicion. Heck, he was even in the Eurovision Song Contest, hardly an arena of poetic excellence.
And yet, on his Christmas record he debuts several fantastic songs by both chanson royalty and relative unknowns – including the deeply nostalgic “Le Noel Des Enfants Sages” by Freddy Balta and Robert Gall, filled with longing for a lost childhood – and he sings with poise and a strong, personal presence. The covers and classic carols certainly work less well, but altogether it’s as if Claveau has taken a step upwards, specifically for Christmas. Unusual, limited instrumentation and no fear of melodramatic minor-key tragedy brings in something of the intimate chanson presence, and Claveau feels right at home in the childhood themes, truly feeling more for nostalgia and tenderness than he ever seemed to do for love songs.
Charlie Chaplin is said to have called him France’s answer to Bing Crosby, and he certainly lives in the same spirit. If anything, the comparison is more unfair to André Claveau.