Edith Piaf, La Vie En Rose 1935-1951
A winning Piaf primer.
I am French but for many, many years, I just couldn't get into Edith Piaf. It's not that I cringed at the somewhat clichéd France she represented — the omnipresent accordion and waltz rhythm conjuring images of baguettes and cigarettes hanging from pursed lips, a glass of red wine on a café counter. I actually love this France, the way an American may have an instinctive affinity with gum-snapping waitresses in corny diners. It was just that I found her songs too slow, too hackneyed, too willfully doleful. When it came to charting music from the mid-1930s-early 1960s (Piaf's active period), I much preferred the Great American Songbook, which felt more modern than Piaf's backwards-looking pathos. As for French songs of that period, I delighted in the swing stylings of Irène de Trébert, Suzy Solidor's sexual ambiguity, the comic verve of Arletty or Danielle Darrieux's romantic soprano — everybody but Piaf.
Then I saw the biopic La vie en rose in a movie theater back home, and suddenly Piaf clicked. I felt at one with the sold-out crowd and, at the end, we all cried together — it was just like when France won the World Cup in 1998! Revisiting the songs in the context of Piaf's life, everything oddly made sense: I finally got her.
Despite the absence of “Milord” and “Non, je ne regrette rien,” this compilation makes for a good intro to Piaf, starting off with 1936's “Les mômes de la cloche” (her first record) and “J'suis mordue,” on which the 21 year-old singer already shows the miraculous gift of empathy that makes her sound as if she's carrying all the sorrows of the world on her shoulders. Piaf could shine in a romantic mode (“J'm'en fous pas mal,” “Les amants de Paris”) or be downright playful (“Rien de rien”), but she was at her best singing on the beautiful anguish of love or depicting fate's cruelest twists with sad resignation. She came out of the “chanson réaliste,” a tear-jerking genre filled with doomed loves, struggling folk, gritty neighborhoods, sailors lost at sea and tough prostitutes, and made famous mostly by women: Yvette Guilbert, Damia and the most unfortunate of them all, Fréhel. Like them, and like Judy Garland in America, Piaf was drug-addled and unlucky in love: a bottled tragedy. But what she poured out on stage was nothing less than life itself.