Mystère sure was a tough second album challenge if I ever saw one. After the masterpiece that was their 2013 debut Psycho Tropical Berlin (my favourite album of the year, hands down), La Femme rose to the indisputable status of being one of the hottest French acts around, filling increasingly larger venues to the brim and selling their 45rpm singles like hot buns. So it’s fair to say my expectations (just like everybody else’s) were sky-high for Mystère, and as soon as they began detailing their new album I vehemently prayed night and day not to be disappointed.
I needn’t be concerned, though; Mystère is a long, cohesive, and magnificent work of art, full of vivid soundscapes and synesthetic tableaux. Despite maintaining a few connections to their excellent debut LP, the album ultimately signals a departure from their almost-exclusive strange-wavish electro-surf that we got immediately addicted to (remember ‘ Sur La Planche’?), finding the French collective venturing into a more eclectic, experimental-oriented territory that suits them like a tailor-made glove.
It is also a darker, more contemplative album; one must keep in mind Mystère not only appears a full three years after Psycho Tropical Berlin, but also in the aftermath of a series of events in France (Charlie Hebdo, the Bataclan attacks) that inevitably echo through their songwriting. That’s not to say La Femme are purposely discussing socio-political situations through their music, but stating they couldn’t have possibly escaped a transversal feeling of malaise that hovered (and still does) over the world in general and Europe in particular, with Paris being the obvious epicentre. Tracks like ‘Le Vide Est Ton Nouveau Prénom’ (“Emptiness is your new name”) or ‘Al Warda’ showcase a melancholy in both their melody and lyrics that was notably absent from Psycho Tropical Berlin, acting as violent testimonies of this sudden loss of naïveté. Mystère is an album that meditates about itself and the world; a direct heir of the great French philosophers and theorists. It gains an extra layer of existential relevance by questioning its place and role in contemporary society. However, not everything here is as linear as it may seem; ‘Où Va Le Monde’, for example, is not a political or social outcry but, according to the band themselves, a reflection on the reversals of life and love.
Mystère is not exclusively about darkness and despair; the LP’s third single ‘Septembre’ is a Granville-ish (the band) approach to ‘It’s Time To Wake Up 2023', while ‘Mycose’ (no translation needed) brings a much-needed comic relief to the second half of the album. And then there are infectious tracks like ‘Tatiana’, whose contagious rhythm vaguely reminiscent of the explosion of ‘Nous Étions Deux’ makes it impossible for one to sit still while listening to it; or the social critique of ‘SSD’, that incorporates tongue-in-cheek lyrics into a mix of post-punk, French touch, and even disco (those violins fool no one). The reason why this album is such an outstanding piece of work is how it manages to successfully balance deeper, more introspective tracks with carefree-ish tunes surgically placed here and there to avoid fatigue. These two approaches are not hermetic nor exclusive, however; ‘Tueur de Fleurs’ is an example of this conceptual hybridity that initially seemed to be too much of a paradox to happen — yet that’s how genius La Femme are.
Mystère closes with the extra-long ‘Les Vagues’ which slightly revisits opener ‘Sphynx’. If one listens closely, it’s possible to hear a vague reference to ‘La Femme’/Interlude/’Hypsoline’, one of the central pieces from the band’s previous album whose flowing musical narrative was brilliantly put to film. And although it may sound peaceful at first, hell soon comes crashing down your head by the mid-point. There’s also an English-sung hidden track that could be seen as social commentary but also as testimony to the pride La Femme take with their work: it’s a finishing touch, the cerise sur le gatêau, the curling of the red ribbon before the gifts are placed under the tree.
Having listened to Mystère quite a few times now, I can only underline the advice the band provide with the album’s press release: “slow down, take it easy, allow yourself to be taken far away.” Prepare yourself for a simultaneous escape and wake-up call; for a musical illustration of both the urban Parisian edge and the laid-back vibe of Brittany — the two locations where they recorded the LP. Mystère is so complete and relevant in its duality and loss of innocence that I’m sure its pertinence will be solidified with each year that passes. A product of its time and place, it is indeed an unmerciful portrait of contemporary society painted with the disdain of a caricature and the splendour of an opening night at the Opera.
Originally published at https://www.thefourohfive.com.