The pattern is common: after an artist releases an album that brings instant and unexpected success, said artist promptly dries up and goes into hibernation, only to return with a bloated and similar product several years later. Therefore when -M- (a pseudonym based on a pun on the word “aime”, or love) got slightly lost in collaborations and live albums after his 2003 smash Qui De Nous Deux, the omens weren’t good. Nevertheless, with Mister Mystère, there is a sense of definite progression.
Maybe he was helped by having some of the songwriting weight taken off his shoulders by his famous composer dad, Louis, and songwriting veteran Brigitte Fontaine. Nevertheless, the title track that kicks off the album, a rehash of a Fontaine song, is pretty forgettable funk-by-numbers that comes off as some sort of Qui De Nous Deux b-side. Likewise Est-Ce Que C’est Ça, which seems like it has all the funky elements necessary for greatness but never quite gets there. These two are probably the two most listened to songs on the record though, so maybe I’m spouting barnacles.
It’s when Chédid brings it down a notch that his tunes are most effective. Phébus, with its pretty acoustic guitar sounds like something from debut album Le Baptême, while Le Roi Des Ombres (King of the Shadows) manages to be both intimate and intricate at once: “Je suis M / Tu aimes” Chédid sings, as if after 7 years we’d forgotten who he is. Semaine, too, succeeds by not trying anything particularly daring: M’s higher register carries the song on its own.
L’élixir is the great French pop song that never was, with its wonderfully brooding build-up completely ruined by a chorus-by-numbers. Of the two bombastic rockers on Mister Mystère, the first, Tanagra, is a fantastic blend of Hendrix guitar and bluesy guitar and Polnareff-style lyrics (“Je suis fooooou … de toi” – obviously we’ve become more informal since the days of Polnareff’s classic!) The second, Destroy, epitomises all the worst excesses of French pop, although it’s the sort of song that might come alive when played live.
The rest of the album contains some surprisingly fun oddball moments, from the pulsating quasi-instrumental Hold Up, to the singalong Amadou and Maridou-inspired Amssétou. Let’s hope that -M-’s album are like buses and we get another one next year, although I doubt it. Overall, Mister Mystère just about maintains its predecessor’s high standards without retreading old ground.