La Mécanique du Cœur is a wonderfully conceived concept album by the French band Dionysos, joined by a novel of the same name by band leader Mathias Malzieu, which trails the story of young Jack who has a clock for a heart. According to the band:
Edinburgh, 1874. Jack was born on the coldest day in history and his heart has been frozen ever since. Half-witch, half-shaman, the midwife who brought him to the world manages to save the newborn by replacing his defective heart with a clock. This prosthesis works and Jack will continue to survive on condition that he winds up his heart every morning and avoids any emotional overdrive: so anger is off the cards and as for being in love- absolutely out of the question.
However the sultry gaze of a petite street musician will put the midwife’s advice to the test, not to mention our hero’s heart. Prepared to do anything to find her again, Jack embarks on a road trip that will take him from Scottish lochs to the arcades of Grenada, and introduce him to the pleasures of love as well as the torments of jealousy.
The outcome is a beautiful, Gothic clockwork fairy tale rendered in Indie-style Rock and Burtonesque imagery. The aesthetic of this fairy tale is seen most clearly in the video for the single Tais Toi Mon Cœur, which recalls the stop-motion work of Tim Burton, as well as airs of Terry Gilliam and Guillermo del Toro, equally dark and Gothic but whimsical and fairylike, even as it is so tragic.
The album opens with the epic Le Jour le Plus Froid du Monde, ringing in the album with the tik-tok chirping of a cuckoo-clock leading into a funkish beat. Here we are introduced to Jack, born on the coldest night of the year, and his midwife-witchdoctor Madeline who replaces his frozen heart with clockworks. The introduction continues into the broken English of La Berçeuse Hip Hop du Doctor Madeline, in which the witch explains to Jack how he must never fall in love. Like some of the following songs in English, the emotional impact is somewhat diminished by the comical attempt to sing in a language that is obviously not native to the singers. However, this is offset by guest singer Emily Loizeau's sensual delivery of admonitions to the innocent-sounding Jack, who wonders if he can even dream of love and sex.
Despite the comforts of Jack's friend Arthur singing a gruff When the Saints Come Marchin' In, the crisis comes to Jack when he meets Miss Acacia in Flamme à Lunettes; a charmingly soaring and sweet-sounding duet with Malzieu's real-life partner Olivia Ruiz against the recurring backdrop of ticking clockworks. But Jack's panic at falling in love and the threat this poses to his delicate little heart comes fast and heavy in Symphonie pour Horloge Cassée, where he describes his new fascination as a "fire girl". This leads into the racy, burlesque song about a pet hamster called Cunnilingus Mon Amour, sung in tandem with Jack's prostitute friends.
Conflict enters Jack's world with Joe, a competitor for the affections of Miss Acacia. In Thème de Joe, the ne'erdowell explains his contempt for this strange new boy and his intention to rid himself and Acacia of the problem. Things don't go according to plan as they fight in L'école de Joe and Jack gouges out Joe's eye on his clockworks. Fleeing the scene of the crime, Jack falls in with Georges Méliès in Paris, who accompanies him to Andalusia, where Miss Acacia has fled. Their journey is recounted in L'Homme Sans Trucage, and his reunion with Acacia in La Panique Mécanique. As the second single, L'Homme Sans Trucage gained its own video, which traded in the Burtonesque animation style for a moving collage of clockwork imagery. Part of the effect is no doubt in echo of Méliès, the role played here by French actor Jean Rochefort, and Terry Gilliam, in whose ill-fated film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote Rochefort was to star.
Jack takes up a job at the same carnival as Acacia in King of the Ghost Train, and safe in each other's arms, consummate their love in the ridiculously endearing and poppy music box tune Mademoiselle Clé. The romantic revelry continues into the the English language, Spanish guitar erotic dance of Candy Lady. Thankfully Jack's heart doesn't break like Madeline told him it would. However, all is not well as Joe makes his return in Le Retour de Joe, a monologue leading to Jack's final jealous confrontation with Acacia in Death Song.
After convalescing from ripping out his own clockworks, a much-changed Jack returns to visit Miss Acacia, who no longer recognizes the person before her in the album's best song and first single, Tais Toi Mon Cœur. Despite his pleading, she bids him adieu, and he pines out a love lament in the previous rock single of Dionysos, Whatever the Weather, incorporated into this story's narrative.
Finally, mournfully, sadly, tragically, Jack moves on to a lonely life as Giant Jack, a character from Dionysos' previous album Monsters in Love, as described in Epilogue. The album closes with the wistful, romantic Hamac of the Clouds (How Romantic it Would Be).
Malzieu has noted that he did not wish La Mécanique du Cœur to be a tight concept album, hoping that the music and concept would be accessible. Unfortunately he missed the mark in a few cases: there are several tracks on the album that are almost pure exposition, even down to the character talking his way through to a musical accompaniment. For example, Théme de Joe, L'école de Joe, Le Retour de Joe and the Epilogue are this exposition, outlining the external conflict of the story.
Many of the songs, once the lyrics are translated, only make sense in terms of the story. The main example is the single, Tais Toi Mon Cœur. A wonderful song mixing in danceable rhythms with a flamenco guitar, (actually a very common trend in French pop music, as I discovered courtesy of hotel televisions) it works quite well on its own as a nice tune. For most of us in the Anglosphere, that's all it can be, since the lyrics are in French. But translated, the song does not tell its own story... It is the climax of the story's narrative, and it helps to know that when Jack is imploring Miss Acacia and she is rebuffing him, it is hot on the heels of the Jack's self-mutilating last encounter with Acacia.
Some of the weakest tracks on the album are those that don't stand up on their own as songs but make no sense without the context of the written novel, The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart. There is a sequence in the middle of the album where Jack goes travelling in pursuit of Miss Acacia and in employed by a ghost train. Why this sequence exists or how it plays into the story is ambiguous from the album on its own, but the songs in this part - L'homme sans Trucage, La Panique Mécanique and King of the Ghost Train - aren't exactly the strongest. There are tracks that are fine on their own, but need the novel to discern how they fit into the story, such as the Tom Jones by way of Tom Waits-style rendition of When the Saints Come Marchin' In.
These merely articulate how La Mécanique du Cœur is an ambitious multimedia work, drawing lines between the novel and its illustrations, the album, music video and upcoming live concert performances. As an added bonus, the CD includes OpenDisk features which allow one to access an exclusive website with videos, remixes and desktops. For more, be sure to visit the album's MySpace.