Album Analysis | Georges Moustaki - Le Métèque
A look back at one of the most important works by an artist you've never heard of.
Georges Moustaki was an incredible singer-songwriter, but remains largely unknown outside of France. He sang of love, loneliness, and triumph in his native language, and remains a beloved figure in French musical history. 50 years on, his “debut” album (there was one before, but this is considered to be where it all started) Le Métèque remains a beautiful collection of songs that follow them in the classic French folk-pop tradition. Ripe with loneliness, comfort and a voice that makes Leonard Cohen sound like Mickey Mouse, these songs take listeners on sonic journeys across rainy European cafes and countrysides while simultaneously wrapping them in the comfort only otherwise found in their favorite pyjamas. The magic of this record lies in the perfect meld of music and lyric. Thematic concepts of travel and loneliness come together in almost sublime harmony on this record to create an atmosphere so distinctly unique, one cannot but help but be enamoured. This is a man who is so in tune with his own artistry, it is almost impossible for him to make a misstep which he rarely, if ever, does.
Released in 1969, Le Métèque remains strikingly unique while bearing a number of comfortably familiar influences. Shades of England and Greenwich Village’s folk scenes sit comfortably with Serge Gainsbourg-esque arrangements. The first side of the record opens with the mystifying “Le Meteque,” a track with devastating lyrics about feeling as lonely as an immigrant in Greece but hoping to return to a love, all delivered with a hint of hope. The song acted as a catalyst for Moustaki’s singing career. After about a decade as a popular songwriter, Moustaki penned the powerful song only to have it rejected by singers and record companies alike. This was largely due to its use of the word “meteque,” a derogatory term used to describe men of southern european origin. In his song however, Moustaki reclaims the word, and turns the song into a rally-cry for French and other European minorities. Recognizing the power of the song, Moustaki sang it himself, and after it became a hit, his singing career was off. His beautiful yet powerful words tear through the lush, tightly arranged music, but through a hole so small you would barely notice it was there. This masterful tune sets the tone for what is to come on the record and gives you an idea of what you are up against lyrically.
The second song on the record, “La Mer M'a Donné” opens with one of the greatest images of all time: “La mer m'a donné sa carte de visite pour me dire:" Je t'invite à voyager” which translates to “The sea gave me his business card to tell me: "I invite you to travel.” At this point, it’s clear that Moustaki knows what he’s doing. Alain Gouraguer’s vaguely tropical arrangement with washing cymbals and discreet xylophone coupled with Moustaki’s intimate delivery create an environment so familiar, yet so unique to Moustaki. Loneliness once again permeates “Gaspard,” the tale of a drifter who dreamed of dying in war but could find no such relief. On this acoustic guitar duet, Moustaki’s musicianship finally shines through. The song is musically timeless and seemingly could have come from the basement of the Café Wha circa 1963. It’s the melding of American folk music changes with distinctly French overtones that truly show the genius of Moustaki’s playing. Side one ends with three masterstrokes. The driving “Voyage” opens with the twangs of a sitar over a bed of strings that immediately remind you that it’s 1969. Moustaki sings of travel in a way that sounds like he is actually holding a hand out to you, inviting you personally to join him. “Le Facteur” owes more to Leonard Cohen than anyone else, with its ethereal female vocals (courtesy of Francoise Walch) and a fingerpicking pattern seemingly from Cohen’s “The Stranger’s Song.” However, all is forgiven as soon as Moustaki leaps into his upper register for the first time in a beautiful embrace with Walch’s soaring falsetto in what may well be the most sublime moment on the album. Side one closes with the beautiful instrumental “Natalia” and acts as a perfect segue into side two.
After utilizing a number of collaborators on side one, side two of this record is pure, unadulterated Moustaki. Opening with the dour “Ma Solitude,” Moustaki reminds us that “I'm never alone With my loneliness.” Again, Moustaki’s lyrics are wrapped in an arrangement so sweet, you almost forget how down the lyrics are. His velvet-lined vocals are so smooth and intimate, you would think he was singing right to you. Elsewhere, on “Le Temps de Vivre,” Moustaki channels his focus to a lover and implores them to go and get away from it all to live life freely again. Moustaki may be a man enraptured by solitude, but he is also enamoured with the idea of escape. Throughout side two, even on the melancholic instrumental closer “Rue des Fossés Saint-Jacques,” a feeling of being unwanted permeates. One exception is “Joseph,” which contains some of the most fascinating lyrics of the record. Singing as a friend of Joseph of Galilee, Moustaki sings of how he feels bad for old Joe, who had to take Mary for a wife instead of any of the other beautiful women of the bible. Moustaki hopes Joseph will find joy in passing down to his son the trade passed down from Joseph's dad to him. There is no illicit mention of Jesus Christ, but the audience, of course, knows this, and it creates an environment within the song not found anywhere else on the album. Yes, Moustaki was a man who loved to write about sadness, but his creativity kept him fresh every time.
On the back cover of the album is a quote from the French pop singer Barbara that reads “Moustaki, c’est ma tendresse” ("Moustaki is my tenderness") which sets the tone for this entire album. Moustaki’s lyrics conjure up images of the classic angsty European folk singer, hunched over a guitar on a rickety stool in the corner of some smoky room. However, his tender singing and delivery of his often masterful lyrics have the amazing ability to beguile any listener into falling in love with his work. This brings the conversation to the smiles on the front and back covers. You may ask yourself, “why is a guy so bummed out grinning in every photo included on this record?” Georges Moustaki’s smile on the front cover is not just for the benefit of the camera. It is a knowing smile, not all that dissimilar to Shel Silverstein's toothy peek from the back of The Giving Tree. The bearded smile conveys the happiness some of these songs carry, but conveys mystery and solitude as well, just like his music.