Darlène is a game-changing album in the Canadian music conversation.
As of tomorrow, Darlène, the debut album by Hubert Lenoir will either be on the 2018 Polaris Music Prize shortlist, or it will be widely hailed as the record robbed of its rightful place amongst the ten best Canadian albums of the year. No matter which way the jury voting shakes down for Lenoir (and barring a surprise triple album from Drake), I am placing good money on Darlène being the most talked about record in music circles all across the land this week.
It’s all with good reason: Darlène is a mighty post-modern rock opera of a record that comes with it’s own accompanying novel (written by Noémie D. Leclerc, Lenoir’s partner). Lenoir’s racked up the Bowie comparisons for the glammy opening triptych of “Fille de personne I, II, III” and his androgynous accoutrements, but there’s equal amounts of soul, swing, jazz, new wave, and psychedelia sprinkled throughout the eleven-song narrative.
The title character of both album and novel is a young girl living in Quebec City, looking for emancipation from her conservative family. She meets a young American boy who’s come to town with a plan to commit suicide by jumping from Montmorency Falls. Despite the dense arrangements and complex structure, Lenoir worked on the musical version of Darlène quickly, inspired chapter by chapter as Leclerc wrote. It’s an unconventional premise for a pop record, but Lenoir is an unconventional pop star. In a recent appearance on Le Voix performing “Fille de personne II” with the show’s contestants, Lenoir commanded the stage like a veteran performer, scandalizing viewers at home with overt sexual overtones and his fleur-de-lis-imprinted bare ass cheek.
It’s the same kind of swagger that sets “Ton hôtel” on fire right from the start and lets “Si on s’y mettait” smolder with Prince-like passion. The audacity of Darlène’s aforementioned three-song opening suite is matched by the equally impressive set of three instrumentals at the record’s close. The absence of lyrics barely registers on such a lush album, where horns easily slip into the lead vocal slot, embedding as much poignancy and emotion as Lenoir’s octave-busting croon.
Bowie and Prince comparisons feel like bold proclamations for a twenty-something upstart singer-songwriter with a single full-length under his belt, but in Hubert Lenoir’s case, they are completely justified. Darlène feels like a game-changing album in the Canadian music conversation, one that’s capable of bursting through anglophone music’s fortified barricades. The last time I truly remember a French singing francophone pop star crossing over to English Canada is Mitsou with “Bye bye mon cowboy” thirty years ago. It’s time for that drought to end. Darlène is a fresh and uncompromising record, just like its talented and visionary creator. Canada needs Hubert Lenoir more than it knows.