Jacques Brel–Amsterdam

Jacques Brel influenced musical titans that include the likes of David Bowie and Leonard Cohen, but it is Scott Walker who is most closely associated with the Belgian great.  Walker launched his solo career by not only aping Brel, but by performing English translations of a number of his songs.  Some have argued that Walker actually managed to improve on the songs, giving them greater polish and a fuller sound.  But to argue polish improves the piece is to miss the great joy of Brel’s work.  As big a fan as I am of Walker, I don’t think his version of Amsterdam would have the same crossover appeal if I were a non-English speaker.  His voice is a thing to behold, but the piece is a considerably restrained affair compared to the original.  Brel goes for broke when he performs the song.  He is vivid and restless, emotional and undone.  Walker’s version is so cool and clean, but Brel manages to be hair-raising without the need to understand the, admittedly fantastic, lyrics.  Hearing Brel sing it is a visceral experience, from the moment his voice matches the strength of the opening accordion until the desperate, defiant final moments where he can barely hold himself together.  It was this abandon while singing that made him so appealing.  Brel possessed a rock and roll recklessness that crossed cultural and linguistic barriers, inspiring a generation of great chanteurs.

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