On her ornate baroque-rock opus Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs, Klô Pelgag reimagines both a geographical place and a psychological state.
There’s this older, Victorian-style farmhouse the next block over in the neighbourhood I grew up in that’s always given me the creeps. It’s not as bad as it was when I was a kid, but passing it now still brings me back to my paper route days when I routinely “forgot” to drop a paper at its doorstep. The grounds were well-kept, the windows were always dark with curtains drawn, and though there were always obvious signs of life at this house, I — nor any of my neighbourhood friends — ever actually saw anyone on its property. As an adult, I know there wasn’t anything nefarious going on; it’s just another house in the neighbourhood (albeit a creepy-looking one). In my mind, though, it still vividly exists as the scene of demonic possessions and hidden horrors.
This house has been on my mind a lot lately thanks in no small part to Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs, the new, exquisitely nuanced album from Montreal-based artist Klô Pelgag. The record takes its name from a Quebec village. Pelgag says that as a child, whenever she drove past the village’s sign, she’d have the same reaction: “Every time I saw it, I averted my eyes and shivered in horror. That name terrified me. I imagined a dying village with sad houses, empty streets and creaky chairs still rocking with the memory of deserters.” She perfectly captures those fearful memories in Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs’s opening instrumental title track; it’s a shiver-inducing hundred seconds of horror-filled sounds. But there’s more to Klô Pelgag’s relationship with the sleepy village than those memories of driving past — just as there’s more to the album than its haunting introduction.
Exhausted and emotionally spent after touring and promoting two previous successful releases, Pelgag recently found herself in the midst of an existential crisis, isolating herself from others physically, emotionally, and psychologically: “A thick fog settled in my head, with black, opaque skies. I now lived on this island that I built or imagined on my own.” While on the road to recovery at the tail-end of summer 2019, Pelgag decided to visit the village of Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs once and for all. What she discovered was a revelation to her: “It’s actually an island… an idyllic place. A village with dirt roads and no more than thirty-five inhabitants, whose souls haven’t been perverted or spoiled by mankind… A superb place. With trees and flowers, a lighthouse, colourful wooden houses, and fish whose flesh was so pure it went beyond my definition of the colour ‘pink.’” Pelgag’s Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs is an exorcism of sorts. Its thematically tied songs are a cleansing of both her childhood memories and the mental/emotional state she had found herself in. It is a reimagining of both a geographical place and a psychological state as well as an ornate baroque-rock opus.
But in order to achieve such a release, Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs drives head-first into harrowing tales like the one Pelgag describes on “Umami”, where she sings of being closer to death more often than life and spending the winter hibernating in her bed. On the mournful piano-based ballad “J’aurai les cheveux longs” she sorrowfully sings « Mais je t’attends, je t’attends » as if whoever and whatever she’s waiting for is all in vain. Pelgag presents many of the album’s songs as a dialogue with an unnamed other, but upon deeper listening, it feels more as if the dialogues are all internal: between Pelgag while she was in the midst of her struggles and the person she’s become after visiting the village of Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs. In a sense, she becomes her own tour guide through the horrors she imagined as a child.
Never once, though, does Pelgag try to assuage herself (and her listeners) with any kind of “it gets better” wisdom. The album’s twelve songs, resplendent in brazen brass and swelling strings, more closely mirror the psychological place filled with fears and anxieties than the idyllic island village she discovered in reality.
And so it is that the second of Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs’s self-titled tracks, the album’s closing bookend, isn’t a sunnier counterpoint to the album’s introduction. In some ways, it’s even more sinister, with stirring synths giving way to mournful piano chords and a return to the earlier track’s theremin-like hum. That Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs ends with no sense of resolution from where it began feels perfect: for as much as we move on in life, our present and future will always be informed by our experiences and perceptions of reality in the past.