Halo Maud is French multi-instrumentalist Maud Nadal and her debut album Je Suis Une Ile asks many questions and pulls in many directions, so much so that it is hard to know whether to be intrigued or bewildered.
Growing up in rural France (Auvergne) she found herself writing songs in English:
‘It took me a while to find my voice,’ she says. ‘To find my language even. I always listened to English music so when I started writing songs they were in English, too, and French came later. It’s difficult – everything sounds good in English, French is much harder.’
While many French singers strayed from their language to get mass appeal (Francoise Hardy Sings in English and France Gall’s forays into German and Italian come to mind), Maud transfers seamlessly between the two languages in each song and amongst the mélange of dreampop, psychedelia and prog you don’t even notice the transitions.
Single “Wherever” kicks off the album and it comes across like experimental pop from 10 years ago, the pre-Grimes, pre-Banks era, like a lighter lost track from Fur and Gold or The Reminder. It’s possibly the most coherent and settled track on the album as the rest of the songs are full of contrasts, experimental Dadaist pieces with abrupt endings that make you wonder which direction she is heading in next.
“Du Pouvoir/Power” begins like French classic “Comment Te Dire Adieu” over “When Doves Cry”-style percussion. It’s pleasant enough but strangely it’s at the end point where it gets more interesting as it fades out with some tribal backing vocals and then just ends.
There are many contrasting influences. “Chanceuse” sees dreamy 1981 OMD-synths intertwined with sharp psychedelic interruptions. “Surprise” begins like a sinister retro film soundtrack before resembling a sound like Cocteau Twins sans reverb. Single “Tu Sais Comme Je Suis” has Maud’s vocal straddling between Debut era Björk to soft, breathy Jane Birkin styles.
And this is the first half of the album done. Fitting in with the contrasts on display so far, it’s only right that the second half (let’s call it side two) becomes more abstract.
The mood change of side two is artistically welcome but it isn’t without its frustrations. “De Retour” is simply an interlude ushering in this change and the title track’s reliance on a reversed “Du Pouvoir” as its centrepiece means it can’t go much beyond two minutes before the flame of an idea lingers too long.
“Baptism” on face value is the main culprit of unfulfilled potential. It conjures up an intrigue with its enigmatic chant (‘What happened after, I don’t remember…’) that repetitively builds with the song. The chorus, however is an anticlimax with ‘Ah-ah’ harmonies being the only answer we get. The show-don’t-tell vibe is fine but some sort of clue would have been nice. Luckily, Maud explains that the song is actually about her own baptism: ‘I expected a big change in me, but nothing happened.’ These sentiments wonderfully echo the expectations of the listener.
The use of ‘Ah’s’ is repeated in the dark finale “Des Bras” but here it stems from studio ad-libbing and it’s refreshing to see the results of spontaneity included in a final mix and you get the feeling that Halo Maud has certainly been using her own Oblique Strategies in the crafting of this album.
Halo Maud may just have delivered her ‘difficult first album’ before settling on a path to take and truly finding her voice. She can do beauty (the misty, cinematic “Dans Le Nuit”) and she can do chaos (the Robert Fripp-like stabbing guitars that develop between the childlike “Fred” to the skipping, charming sound of “Proche Proche”). When she has the luxury of several options to take her to the next release, why should she stick to a formula? Whether she becomes more accessible or not, it’s good to know she has the depth to adapt and challenge along the way.
Je Suis Un Ile is out now.