Singer-songwriter Philippe B found inspiration both from being in a couple, and from the movies, for his sublime fifth solo album, La grande nuit vidéo. Make a batch of popcorn and whip out the Kleenex before you sit down to take in this impressionist, sentimental drama – where real emotions arise through fictional situations, resulting in one of the most beautiful albums in Québec so far this year.
True or false? Did you really meet your girlfriend “à taverne Chez Baptiste” on Mont-Royal Avenue, as you sing in the country ballad “Interurbain” at the heart of the album? Yes, says Philippe B. “There’s truth in there, and there’s stuff that’s totally made up,” he says, specifying that he wagered that his (partial) concept album would move people by keeping things simple. “I know I’m not the only one who’s in a stable relationship and watches movies and TV series as part of our daily lives…”
La grande nuit vidéo is a “concept” album that’s not bogged down by its concept: It’s a love story – including the stormy passages that sometimes implies – where the two main characters imagine their love for each other both in their daily lives, and in the fantasy world of the movies.
Although that’s one possible interpretation of B’s fifth album, he says, “My manager did not believe it was a concept album at all. I’m on the fence, myself: it’s my most thematic album, or rather, the one whose theme is the most coherent, because all the songs pretty much tell the same story.” Some of the album’s songs still feel a little more far-fetched, like the aforementioned “Interurbain,” and the instrumental suite “Le Monstre du lac Témiscamingue,” which marks the middle of the album. “If only because of its musical style, ‘Interurbain’ allows us to let go for a few moments,” says Philippe B. “Yet lyric-wise, it still fits within the album’s script.”
There really is a story being told on La grande nuit vidéo, “in the sense that it is the same couple throughout, two characters,” says the singer-songwriter. “The woman is voluntarily represented, contrary to Ornithologie, la nuit (2014), where the female presence was disembodied. Here, she’s the leading role, with lots of lines.” And that role is played by Milk & Bone’s Laurence Lafond-Beaulne. “I wanted a single singer that could sing as comfortably in French [on the sumptuous “Anywhere”] as in English, in order to be convincing.”
QUOTE: “I love the idea of an album you love immediately, yet discover new things about it every time you listen to it”
The rest of the album is a magnificent pageant of stripped-down songs – acoustic guitar or piano, and voice – embellished by ornate orchestral flourishes. It’s all in the dosing. Take for example, “Explosion,” the album’s opener: no chorus, just one long, lilting melodic phrase sung over an acoustic guitar motif, repeated twice. During the instrumental break on the second repetition, a string ensemble briefly makes the rich melody soar and sets the tone for the upcoming songs. It shows a rare grace and refinement, in a pop music world where strings are often relegated to the role of sonic wallpaper.
Orchestration-wise, La grande nuit vidéo can be considered as the sum of the experiments heard on Variations fantômes (2011), where classics of the classical and romantic periods were sampled, as well as on Ornithologie, la nuit’s brass and woodwind arrangements. On this album, it’s all about enhancing specific sections of the compositions with orchestrations written by Philippe B, with the valuable advice of his friends and collaborators Guido del Fabro, Frédéric Lambert and Philippe Brault, the latter also playing electric bass on a trio of more uptempo tracks.
“I write songs, the artist insists. I bear that in mind when I’m working on the arrangements. It sounds simple when you say it like that, but it forces me to choose how I’m going to orchestrate and mix the album: if I add more sonic ingredients, it is at the service of the melody and lyrics, not because I’m trying to fill all the available space. Everything is there for the song, and for lyrics-based songs, I would dare say.”
The 39 Steps
Initially, the idea was to have instrumentals between each song, to give the whole concept an even more cinematic feel. Those instrumental sections were then incorporated to the songs, “because if I’m going to tell this couple’s story from a movie perspective, it needs to be felt musically, too,” says Philippe B. “The album concept justifies those instrumental orchestrated bridges, because it really is like watching a movie… I did listen to a lot of film music while I was creating this album,” yet without any clear, specific musical reference.
The references to the movies are in words, images, and names. “Je t’aime, je t’aime” is a reference to Alain Resnais’ film of the same name. “Debra Winger,” whose name becomes a song title, is Philippe B’s heartthrob. The scene, in the song, where she finds herself in the desert is a reference to The Sheltering Sky (1990), “a highly erotic classic,” says B. “It’s the story of a jaded couple who embark on a trip to re-kindle the flame. Sure, it’s commercial American fare, and she’s a popular icon. But she’s my crush, and, it’s funny, I remembered people almost chastising me for it… I told that to a friend, who asked who my favourite actress was, and he chastised me. Who’s your favourite? Debra Winger? Get outta here! What?! I’m allowed, no?”
The album’s booklet also thanks the poet Charles Baudelaire – “a read from my youth, one of his poems is titled “Anywhere” [even in the original French], and my song mimics that poem” – as well as Québec filmmaker Jean-Guy Noël (on “Sortie/Exit,” where Philippe B name drops the name of the movie Ti-cul Tougas), and classic mystery/thriller filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, a kind of catalyst for the album.
“I wrote the music for a dance performance – my girlfriend is a contemporary dancer and choreographer… She was putting together a show based on Hitchcock’s use of staircases, their symbolic nature, the trouble they represent, man-woman relationships,” says B. “She danced on a staircase and I was playing the music at the bottom of those stairs.” “Les Enchaînés,”, the French translation of Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), was initially written for that dance performance, as was also “Rouge-gorge.” “That was the starting point,” says Philippe B. “I said to myself: ‘The movies are not bad at all!’ I think I consume more movies than I do music. I have a lot to say on that topic!
“I love the idea of an album you love immediately, yet discover new things about it every time you listen to it. That way you can love it even longer. It is a real joy for me as a lyricist to create links between the songs, to strew references here and there, it ties the album together in a different way. Just like a good movie, like a movie you like immediately because of the story, but when you watch it again, as with a good Kubrick film, you notice the references, like this or that sequence is a nod to Hitchcock… Ideally, you want both, a clear story and a commentary of the history of cinema, nods, great photography, etc.
“When I was younger, I’d make fun of film buffs that saw links everywhere. But over time, I understood that movie makers did have a lot of depth in their work,” says B. And he in his, being a writer, composer, arranger, singer, and producer who has created an exceptional album. “Also, I try to not be inaccessible. I am a songwriter, after all…”